My Cousin Rachel Is A Haunting Drama — So Why Was I Laughing?

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz in My Cousin Rachel
My Cousin Rachel contains all the elements a lush period drama set on the English coast should: a twisted family history, a mysterious newcomer, an undercurrent of mischief lurking beneath superficial manners — and lots of brooding.
By the time Rachel (Rachel Weisz) arrives to her naive younger cousin Phillip’s (Sam Claflin) mansion on the English coast, the discontented young heir has already sulked enough to fill an Emily Brontë novel. Ever since Phillip's guardian unexpectedly died, Phillip has been pacing his filthy estate and muttering plans of revenge. Phillip suspects Rachel, Ambrose's widow whom he met in Florence, of foul play. But after Philip meets his stunning half-Italian cousin, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), he’s too distracted by her wry smile to accuse her of murder.
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More similar to Rebecca than to Hot Fuzz, My Cousin Rachel lacks the making of a comedy. Why, then, would a movie about a young man becoming gradually ensnared by a powerful, potentially malevolent, woman make me, and all the other women in my row at the screening I attended, frequently cackle with laughter?
Easy: In terms of sheer entertainment, there’s nothing like seeing a young man, who was raised exclusively amongst other men, blunder his way through romantic love for the first time.
During their first encounter, Rachel smiles from the corner of her mouth and pours hot water over her special Italian blend with finesse. Though Rachel remains composed, Phillip has essentially transformed into a wooden plank with a face. His tongue is swollen, and his eyes pop out with the bewilderment of a cartoon character. When she tires, Rachel abruptly pushes him from her bedchamber. Phillip stands frozen outside like a man whose compass is spinning and won’t ever point north again.
After Rachel and Phillip’s intimacy deepens, Phillip becomes bolder in his seduction tactics. At one point, he makes a slightly suggestive statement, which Rachel laughs off. The camera then cuts to Phillip, outside in the woods, kicking a tree and muttering “Idiot!” to himself.
We may never know whether Rachel is a criminal conniving Phillip out of his estate, or just a widow seeking independence. What we do know is that Rachel seduces Phillip effortlessly, with feminine wiles so strong they could lift dumbbells.
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So, though the film cranks through its dastardly plot with leering Hitchcockian suspense, though its minor-key piano motif is the soundtrack of a nightmare, the drama My Cousin Rachel is also a bleak comedy about people who make ridiculous mistakes at the altar of love.
After all, even if Rachel is guilty, she’s only able to con Phillip because he’s such an easy target. A few glances filled with longing here, a couple mentions of her Italian lifestyle there, and before you know it, Phillip is giving Rachel his mother’s pearls and including her in his will.
As My Cousin Rachel reminds us, what is a man thrashing within in the spiderweb of first love if not sort of cute, sort of pathetic, and completely worthy of a chuckle?
Or, should I say, it’s worthy of a chuckle until a certain point. After Phillip turns 25 and officially inherits his estate, the laughs stopped coming from my row.
For Phillip’s birthday, Rachel gives him what he’d longed for: Sex. To reach her bedroom, Phillip climbs the vines surrounding her window. He enters the bedroom romantically, a boy raised on too much Shakespeare. He emerges the bedroom a man with the impression that now that he's had her, Rachel is his.
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The next afternoon, Phillip leads Rachel to a field of bluebells. There, he gently pushes her shoulders down onto the ground. After a few awkward thrusts, the camera focuses on Rachel and Phillip’s post-coital expressions. Plastered on Phillip’s is the dazed smile of sexual satisfaction. Rachel, by contrast, looks disgusted, bored, and vaguely aware that the sleeping lion on her chest could cause her harm, should he rouse.
From that point on, gone are the desperate strivings at seduction that filled me with empathy for every lovesick middle-schooler I ever knew. Gone is the bashful ignorance of a person who doesn't know how to wield his body or his words. After Phillip and Rachel have sex, Phillip knows a lot more. Looming over Rachel with threatening gestures, Phillip’s sheer brawn speaks for him. For the first time in My Cousin Rachel, Rachel seems afraid.
The beginning of My Cousin Rachel reminded me of something I’d forgotten: To be young and in love is also to be an unintentional riot.
And the end of My Cousin Rachel reminded me that the frazzled, self-conscious anguish of an infatuated boy is endearing only because it's temporary. One day, like Phillip, that boy will grow up and lose that charming ignorance. After becoming acquainted with the limits, or the limitlessness, of his body in relation to sexual partners, the humor isn't as readily apparent.
My Cousin Rachel premieres on Friday, June 9.
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