“My Cousin Rachel” stars Rachel Weisz in the part she was born to play: a person named Rachel! Based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel, it’s a gothic romantic mystery set on an English estate around the turn of the last century. It involves beautiful people, proper manners, handwritten notes, and whispered conversations. It is exactly the sort of story in which a string of pearls breaks and bounces down the stairs dramatically during a climactic moment.
And it’s a sumptuous little potboiler, adapted and directed by Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “Hyde Park on Hudson”) with an eye toward genteel, respectable sensationalism. Weisz’s Rachel is the widow of wealthy landowner Ambrose Ashley, who left his estate to his orphaned cousin, Philip (Sam Claflin), before moving to Italy to recover from a lingering illness. Philip never met Rachel, only read about her in Ambrose’s letters, which took a dark, paranoid turn near the end of his life. Rachel (who’s also a cousin of theirs; welcome to the aristocracy) was already a widow once before she married Ambrose. Why do her husbands keep dying?
Philip, who loved his cousin Ambrose like a father, believes their cousin Rachel killed her cousin-husband and is prepared to hate her when she comes to visit. When she arrives, he is thrown by her beauty, grace, and humility. What’s more, Ambrose never got around to amending his will after he married, so his estate goes to Philip — and Rachel, self-sufficient and less willing to put up with patriarchal coddling than many women of her day, is fine with that. Philip’s hostility toward her begins to melt, much to the dismay of Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainger), the local girl whom everyone in town has always assumed Philip would marry. Louise’s father (Iain Glen), Philip’s godfather and executor of the estate until Philip turns 25 — in a few days! — also has concerns about his falling under Rachel’s spell.
The story turns, therefore, on questions about Rachel: is she trustworthy, did she kill her husband(s), is she an innocent victim, is she plotting something? Sam Claflin, a pointy-faced actor of regal bearing, does well as Philip, who is a man of his times … which means he considers himself chivalrous even when treating women like property. Weisz, meanwhile, is well-suited to the role of someone who’s enigmatic, beautiful, and smarter than she’s given credit for. Her carefully calibrated performance and Mona Lisa smile keep us guessing right up to the end.
B (1 hr., 46 min.; )