The dark layered romance My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier tells the story of a young Englishman, who plots revenge on his beautiful and mysterious cousin – the „Black Widow“ Rachel. He believes she murdered his guardian. Instead, he suddenly seems to be falling in love with her.
One of the most successful novels of the 20th century is now back on screen – packed with passion, desire and distrust.
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Daphne du Maurier: About her novel and Alfred Hitchcock
The story of Rachel origins in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, published in 1951. Her outstanding work combines schockingly psychological portraits of men and women in fascinating and sometimes obsessive relationships. The book became one of the most popular novels of the 20th century.
Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) was one of the most successful writers of her time. Her novels show the most gripping thrillers – packed with romantic intrigue, natural forces and adventure – as well as they illuminate complex relationships and the power of the past. My Cousin Rachel was her 8th novel and one of her most talked-about.
It defines the sharp edge of her insight into the hidden human psyche, and the complicated lives of smart, strong women.
The mysterious Rachel, played by Rachel Weisz. Photo credits to all pictures: 20th Century Fox.
Daphne du Maurier herself was like many of her female characters a bold woman who lived on her own terms. She was born into an artistic family – her grandfather was a caricaturist, her parents stage actors and frequently family visitors in her childhood included J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, and screenwriter Edgar Wallace.
Because of the great success of the book, 20th Century Fox snapped up the film rights, producing Rachel with two of the most popular Hollywood Icons of her time: Richard Burton and Olivia de Havelland. The film was released in 1952 and garnered four Oscar Nominations and a Golden Globe.
Her writing was even so cinematic that Alfred Hitchcock – the master of suspense – made films from three of her novels – Jamaica Inn (1939), The Birds (1940) and Rebecca (1940).
Daphne du Maurier was the best paid writer of her time and continues to influence modern novelists today.
The mystery of Rachel: The Story
England in the 1830s. Philip Ashley’s (Sam Claflin) parents died early, so he grows up at the farmyard of his cousin Ambrose. Ambrose becomes a father figure for Philip. As he is getting older and his health problems increase, Ambrose moves from Cornwall – the southern English coast – to warm Florence. He likes to spend the winter months over there.
While in Italy, Ambrose falls in love with a distantly related woman, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), and marries her. But Ambrose never comes back.
The unexpected death of his uncle as well his last will makes his nephew doubt about the new family member. Philip is sure that Rachel is responsive for the death of his uncle and wants to get to the bottom of this mistery. Meanwhile, the young widow is on her way to England to visit the estate of her husband.
Philip meets a beautiful, articulate woman that seems nothing like the black-hearted poisoner of his mentor. Instead, Rachel ignites in him a longing he’s never even known possible.
„I think if you absolutely know one way or the other what Rachel has done, the story doesn’t work. It’s exciting to make a film where part of the fun is knowing that people will leave the theatre debating… did she or didn’t she? I hope people love the mystery of that as much as I do.“ Director Roger Michell.
The movie fully embraces the novel’s thrilling ambiguity. The story is the search for the truth. A search, that delightfully torments the reader, torments Philip – and still continues to haunt the film’s final moments.
Rachel and Philip at her husband’s estate in Cornwall.
The Black Widow – from Revenge, to Mad Love, to Fear
Academy Award Winner Rachel Weisz is known for giving highly nuanced performances in a wild range of film roles. According to Michell, Rachel was able to bring a haunting quality to the story, which is the key to the whole film. The audience just never knows for certain whether the character of cousin Rachel is guilty or not. In one moment she’s charming, and in the next she’s furious – but still seems as if she’s hiding something.
Rachel is quite bohemian and exotic and very sensualy liberated for her times, Weisz emphasized. The whole fun of the film is to trying to figure out whether she can be trusted. The actress thinks that this question could divide the audience.
Philip lived a life of isolation on his cousin’s estate. He is a man with little experience with women when he meets Rachel. Though he initially intents to seek retribution against her, she instead ignites in him a longing so intense he’s never known possible.
Sam Claflin as the young farmers boy Philip.
For the part of Philip, Roger Michell was in search of a new generation of emotionally complex British actors. Someone, who could travers from vengefulness to romantic ecstasy to the most doubt-ridden tornment. Sam Claflin played Roles in „Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides“ (2011), The „Hunger Games“ Series or the historical movie „Their Finest Hour“ (2017).
While he was exploring the many facets of Rachel, Claflin was also diving into the life of a country farmer, taking lessons not only in horseback riding but also in wielding a scythe and ploughing fields.
Bringing the 19th Century to Life
To bring the 19th century to life in all its bloom and authenticity, Roger Michel chose to work with the close-knit team of director of photography Mike Eley, production designer Alice Normington and costume designer Dinah Collin.
The exact time the novel is set is unclear. That’s why Michell chose to place his movie in the late 1830s, just on the brink of the radical changes of the Victorian Age. Daphne du Maurier’s novel is set between Austen and Dickens and just before the coming of the railways, which would alter the English society.
The estate of Philip’s uncle had to transport the strong and mysterious personality of the female protagonist. The filmmakers settled on Surrey’s West Horstley Place in the Southeast of England. The house was constructed between the 16th and 18th century and had not been touched for many decades.
„We were really surprised when we set foot inside it for the first time. We all rather fell in love – the spirit of the place was so alive and raw.“ Roger Michell.
The estate does not belong to the National Trust, it is owned by a historian and broadcaster – a lucky find for the filmcrew. For Daphne du Maurier’s granddaughter, Grace Browning, the house was everything she imagined while reading the novel.
For the coast, the production journeyed to Devon, known for its sandy bays and steep cliffs.
„The beauty of Devon was perfect for exploring the relationship to the sea that is so important to all of Daphne du Maurier’s writing.“ Producer Kevin Loader.
The same authenticity extended to Dina Collin’s 19th century costumes. She also designed the garments for the BBC drama Pride and Prejudice (1995) and won an Emmy for her amazing work.
Collin dressed Rachel Weisz in a series of black frocks throughout much of the film that gives her a strong and mysterious look. She also added a range of details, such as her shawl, her riding cape and lots of lacy headwear that emphasize her exotic feel.
One vital item was the family heirloom, a necklace. In search of a memorable and unusual piece Collin was inspired by a 19th century portrait she found during her research. She worked closely with a British jeweller to create a similar necklace for the film.
In the end it is those details contributing to impart the movie with such an authentic, mysterious and passionate aura.
„My Cousin Rachel is one of du Maurier’s most psychologically sophisticated works. It taps into all the discomforts of the mind, into our deepest emotions of love and death and their accompanying fears.“ Kevin Loan.
My Cousin Rachel is in German cinemas from September 7th, in US and UK since June. A wonderful recommendation for everyone who loves to dive into the intrigues of the human soul.
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