Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel could quite rightfully be described as a genre-buster. Don’t let the Bronte-esque style of the writing and the stitched-up 19th Century setting fool you into thinking this is another handsome yet turgid English period piece. My Cousin Rachel is, all at once, a work of literature, a mystery-thriller, a romance-tragedy, as well as being quite the feminist observation of the patriarchal mores of the time and place in which it is set.
In 1951 when the book was first published, and even today, genre-busters present a dilemma when it comes to ease of categorisation. Unfortunately, by labelling a book with a one word descriptor as to its ‘genre’, a pigeon-holing quite often occurs. While commercially successful, two of du Maurier’s previous works, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, had been consigned to the category of romance or ‘women’s fiction’, a term that many critics at the time used as little more than a slur. My Cousin Rachel managed to transcend that relegation, albeit very slightly, when The Guardian described it as ‘a consummate piece of story-telling’ at the time of its release. Well, by God, it is so much more than that.
If I were in charge of choosing the genre with which to tag My Cousin Rachel, I’d definitely go for ‘mystery-thriller’ because that is my abiding impression. And it is a mystery novel in every sense of the word, from the gothic literary tone at the very start of the book (a bit reminiscent of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw) to the tightness of the twisting plot and the dropped-in clues along the way that exquisitely enhance the sense of foreboding. The book’s ending is not so such much a door closing on an intricate drama but another door opening onto a dark room of vexing and conflicting presumptions.
Sadly, as a mystery-thriller, it’s difficult for me to provide you with a plot line here that will inform but not spoil the experience of reading the book nor seeing the recently released movie. But I shall do my very best.
Philip Ashley (played by Sam Claflin in the film) was orphaned at a young age and brought up by his cousin Ambrose, a wealthy Cornish landowner. Philip grows up in a world almost completely devoid of women. Ambrose has never married, nor seen the need for it; there are no women servants because the butler believes they bring trouble, and the only females in the household, by Philip’s own admission, are dogs.
Philip loves Ambrose as a father and Ambrose loves and trusts Philip as his own son and sole heir. When Ambrose is forced to travel to warmer, Italian climes due to his health, the pain of separation is palpable for them both. This quickly turns to jealousy when Philip learns via letter that Ambrose has married their distant, recently widowed cousin Rachel (played by Rachel Weisz), who has lived in Italy her whole life. Soon after the nuptials, however, Ambrose’s letters become infrequent and increasingly troubling. Alarmed, Philip travels to Florence, only to learn that Ambrose has died while he was in transit, and his widow has vanished with all of Ambrose’s belongings.
Grief-stricken and very suspicious as to the nature of Ambrose’s death, Philip returns home to Cornwall where he is now the master of the estate, although he is not due to come into his inheritance until his twenty-fifth birthday some months hence. All returns to normal until Philip’s godfather Nick Kendall (played by Iain Glen) is informed by Rachel that she has arrived in England with the intention of visiting the Ashley estate. Having built his cousin Rachel up in his mind as some sort of ugly, conniving and possibly murderous character, Philip is taken aback by the beautiful, cultured and gracious woman that appears at his door. He’s even more surprised at the beguiling effect she has on the servants and, indeed, anyone, male or female, with whom she comes into contact.
The just released movie of My Cousin Rachel is a very fair representation of the story of the novel, so I suppose it is possible to see the film and not bother reading the book. I’ve done that many times myself when I think a book won’t suit my reading taste and I just want to get the gist of the story. However, in the case of My Cousin Rachel and despite the film production’s aplomb, I would strongly urge you not to eschew reading the original text.
While highly enjoyable, the film version of My Cousin Rachel doesn’t quite do the mystery-thriller genre of the book justice. As always happens in screen adaptations of books, certain plot trajectories and intricacies must be changed, distilled or dispensed with for reasons of condensed viewing time. The trick here for the screenwriter is to take care over which plot intricacies to change, distill or dispense with, or indeed what to add in to, presumably, make the on-screen ending more complete for the viewer. However, the ‘closure’ afforded by the film version of My Cousin Rachel does not exist in the book, a change that waters down both the intrigue and the tragedy of the story.
Alas, I cannot justify this assertion without revealing too much. What I can tell you is that My Cousin Rachel is an excellent and compelling read, and the movie a well-cast, beautifully rendered and worthy representation of same. Whether you see the film without reading the book, or vice versa, you are likely to be on the edge of your seat either way.
My Cousin Rachel is now showing around Australia and I saw it at my favourite cinema, the Hayden Orpheum in Cremorne, Sydney.
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