Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Movie Review: My Cousin Rachel (2017)

Oh, this is going to be a tough one to talk about. What makes that statement weird though, considering I’ve reviewed a wide spectrum of releases on this blog before, is that it isn’t even for any of the obvious reasons. I’ve mentioned how old-timey costume dramas really aren’t my thing for some reason, and writing about them isn’t something I find easy, but that’s not it. I’ve shown a certain verging-on-dickishness when discussing feminist-centric notions, something that makes those topics not exactly my favourite thing to talk about, but that’s not it either. Today’s film is a story involving incest between cousins, and to cut a potentially long and aggravating story short, I found out rather recently that apparently people still need to be convinced that incest isn’t exactly the most ideal thing to be doing with one's time. And yet, even that isn’t why this is going to be a tough review to get out there. Rather, it’s because when all three of these areas intersect with this film’s approach to framing its story, it results in a very all-over-the-place kind of production. Let’s get started and, hopefully, I’ll be able to explain why. This is My Cousin Rachel.

The plot: After the death of his surrogate father, Philip (Sam Claflin) seeks revenge against his and his father’s cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), whom signs point to being responsible for the death. However, once the two actually meet, sparks start to fly between them and Philip brings Rachel into his life with open arms. As their relationship progresses, and onlookers like Nick (Iain Glen) and his daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger) start to notice some troubling things going on with Rachel, it seems that Philip may be too love-struck to register them before it may be too late. Or, at least, I think that’s what the film was going for here.

The cast here is honestly rather impressive, if held back somewhat by the story that they’re playing parts in. Sam Claflin is good, even in his weird double-casting, although I would watch a documentary about paint drying if it had his charismatic voice over it. Weisz is also good and makes a nice fit for the character she’s been given, but she ends up held back by how her character seem to stay in flux for the entire film. Glen is incredibly one-note and the fact that his character has so much untapped potential within the story makes his performance feel even more wasteful. However, in his more confrontational moments, he certainly delivers as a potential voice of reason. Honestly, the best performance here comes from Holliday Grainger, who is incredibly bubbly and her banter with Claflin is incredibly warm and natural. When I last complained about costume dramas not being my thing with Love & Friendship, this is the kind of acting and dialogue I’d rather be seeing in these productions. Of course, the fact that the chemistry between Grainger and Claflin is good to the point of being better than the core romance could be argued as being a negative.

So, this film is billing itself as a romance. Fair enough, but that means that the film will have to rely on its romantic entanglements and tension, so they better be good. Not the case, unfortunately. While the main conceit of the romance is a little squicky, given the whole cousin incest angle combined with Claflin portraying both himself and his cousin-turned-stepfather, that isn’t even what makes it fall short. Instead, it’s because despite the evidence of real emotional connection between characters with Philip and Louise, it’s not so evident with Philip and Rachel. From the rather aggressive “let’s judge at face value” approach that Philip goes into the relationship with, it constantly feels like there’s a glass screen between the two that stops them from actually showing that a relationship between them even exists. Whether a straight-forward romance was even the ‘official’ intent of the production can be debated, but no matter what kind of romance they were aiming for, the wobbly chemistry between the characters and their actors means that it doesn’t have the impact that it probably should.

More so than any kind of romance, the way this film presents its story comes across more like a thriller than anything else. Between the flirtations with murder and financial exploitation in Rachel’s actions and the head-trippy moments that Philip goes through as the result of possible poisoning, this story could have gone in some rather intriguing directions. Unfortunately, for as potentially psychological as the plot can get, it is embarrassingly cut-and-dry in its progression. The film starts on the assumption that Rachel killed Philip’s (and her) cousin and doesn’t really deviate from that. Or, at least, it doesn’t deviate to the point of creating reasonable doubt. Making the audience, through Philip, question just how malevolent Rachel’s actions are would be perfectly fine and add a nice texture to the film’s sexual politics, but through the acting, it played so straight that it cuts any of the murky tension it could have had. I mean, when the film foreshadows Rachel using poison with the same subtlety as A Cure For Wellness did with water, it feels less like clever misdirection and more like the film just pulling the rug out from under you; there’s little to show for it, save for a mild headache.

What makes the not-so-ambiguous writing hurt even more is that there are instances of progressive sexual politics involved; possibly anachronistically progressive, but quite frankly, I’m trying to give this film as much credit as I am capable of delivering at this point. Rachel asserts herself on-screen as a woman who wants to exist beyond a connection to a man and having control over her own affairs, up to and including financially. To add to this, any scene where people (particularly men) are shown eating food is done as animalistically as possible, while Rachel just nibbles. Between them, there’s a thematic vein of consumption and using living things for personal gain, something that could have easily given clarity to Rachel’s actions and even gained her some sympathy in her goals. Of course, that vague musing is about as far as it goes and, even with the exterior add-ons, Rachel’s actions could just as easily be argued as part of an act to secure wealth and property for its own sake. Sure, debate over character intentions and subtext can make for very entertaining post-film discussions, but it’s a little trickier to talk about when the film’s framing makes certain arguments a lot easier to make than others. It’s at once really obvious and yet weakly trying not to be at the same time, and considering I’m even able to read any form of subtext into something this ultimately basic, I genuinely don’t know how to take all of this.

All in all, despite having no real expectations going into this, I can’t help but be pretty damn disappointed by this. While the acting is very good and the story occasionally nudges some nuanced ideas, it ends up being drowned out by a general inability to figure out either the tone or the intent of the story. It’s probably not something that’s meant to be taken at face value, but then again, its face value itself is so plain that it’s difficult not to, making for a rather dull and terribly predictable viewing experience. I may have a pre-existing disinterest in costume dramas, but if this film’s potential was properly realized, I might actually like this thing. It’s better than King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, as this film actually has enough possibilities for disappointment to even be possible; outside of a partial return to form for Guy Ritchie, King Arthur didn’t have nearly as much potential. However, in terms of pure entertainment value regardless of intent, this falls short of the riotous disaster that is My Pet Dinosaur.

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