Classic Musings: My Cousin Rachel (1952)

This may seem like common sense, but it occasionally deserves a reminder: the nature of the performances in a film can change the entire fabric of the storytelling. Under better circumstances, My Cousin Rachel should play out as a clever glimpse into the machinations of a widow with unclear motivations, whose interactions with her deceased husband's family could lead her either toward malicious intents or toward her being misjudged by those around her. Conversely, the viewpoint of the young heir to this estate would benefit from more consistent skepticism, since the story's tone leans into that doubting atmosphere. This adaptation of a 1951 novel by Daphne du Maurier loses those intentions, though, despite the efforts of Oscar-recognized talents and a gloomy setting, where instead of indistinct motivations and shifting perceptions, the plot plays out more like a character examination of an easily-persuaded mark and hardships utterly of his making.

The owner of a substantial English estate, Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton) has taken his young cousin, Philip (Richard Burton), into his home after the death of his parents. They lived well over many years, creating a strong family bond between them, well into points when Ambrose starts having health issues. Yearning to avoid the harsh climate, he travels abroad to Italy without Philip -- now a man in his mid-20s -- where he finds himself stranded away from his estate due to a degradation in his illness. Confusion emerges when Philip receives odd letters from his cousin about the care he's receiving, to which Philip later discovers that he had died. During the process, however, Ambrose had found someone that he loves in Italy and decided to marry her, bringing the ownership of the estate into question. When Ambrose's wife, Rachel (Olivia de Havilland), arrives to the estate after a prolonged period of keeping her distance, Philip's skepticism about her motivations takes hold … but so does his sense of empathy, as well as his own fond feelings for the "middle-aged" woman.

My Cousin Rachel begins slowly and deliberately, illustrating what life's like at the Ashley estate before and during Ambrose's vacation abroad. There isn't much development to Philip's character, shifting gears from the curious boy of his youth to the older-than-he-looks chap embodied by Richard Burton, yielding someone whose traits are largely indistinguishable from other naïve, skeptical, semi-hotheaded men of privilege in their 20s. Burton's performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but the reasons for that struggle to be seen in his responsiveness to learning of Ambrose Ashley's death, which default to uninteresting histrionics that do little to enrich the mystery involved with the issues his cousin encountered overseas. His relationship with godfather and estate manager Nick Kendall becomes a more intriguing facet of this early period, mostly due to how Nick micromanages the young Ashley's impulses and imparts knowledge about his cousin's hereditary ailments.

Under the veil of Joseph LaShelle's beautiful shadowy and stone-textured cinematography, youthful rage and skepticism fuel the lead-up in My Cousin Rachel, to such a degree that one still yearns to know more about this mystery widow and how Philip will respond when he's eventually confronted by her. Alas, the moments when they finally meet also becomes the turning point into the film's complications, fueled by an unpersuasive mild-mannered performance from Olivia de Havilland, whose overly amicable, buttoned-up demeanor doesn't jibe with the vagueness of her character's interests. Here, these don't read like the mannerisms of somebody who could be a misunderstood widow caught in tricky circumstances, but like the façade that's projected when someone's trying to conceal their true intentions as they get in the good graces of others. When the circumstances are as suspect as they are involving Ambrose's death, this entity needs to be an influential dramatic force if ambiguity's the intention, and Olivia de Havilland's turn as Rachel lacks the swaying power to make that happen.

Therefore, when the puzzle pieces fall into place and the "twists" play out in My Cousin Rachel, the surprises aren't found in the revealed truths of characters' objectives, but in Philip's obliviousness as his headstrong distrust quickly morphs into generosity, affection … and ignorance. Dramatic lighting and musical cues attempt to punctuate moments of realization and frustration between the cousin and the widow, but the inherent trickiness involved with the push-and-pull of ownership over the estate undermines the film's crucial mysterious streak. The swiftness of how the powers of persuasion take hold in Henry Koster's execution undercut the story's gothic romantic suspense, worsening as the ramifications of those persuasions shape where the plot goes after that. Unlike how the harrowing psychological elements and quick relationship-building were so effortlessly applied to Daphne du Maurier's writing in Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Rebecca, Koster's handling of My Cousin Rachel lets those crucial transitions fall by the wayside, and it drags those desired ambiguities down with them.

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