There's a lot to catch up from the beginning in My Cousin Rachel, which is not always the best sign. But here, let me lay it out for you: Philip (Sam Claflin) is an orphan, about to come of legal age at 25, after having been raised by his cousin, who has died after marrying another cousin, Rachel (Rachel Weisz). Rachel, by the way is both the deceased cousin and Philip's cousin. There's a sort of bent, fucked up love story in here, and it's all between cousins. I just want you to know that, even tough this film doesn't make much of it. But I guess people used to marry their cousins all the time, right?
This is mid-19th century England, after all. It's also a time when communications occurred primarily by letter, and Philip receives a letter from his cousin so inflammatory about Rachel that Philip is convinced she caused her death. The letter, between several lines of paranoia, pleads for him to come and save him.
Instead, Rachel winds up staying as a guest in Philip's home. And much of My Cousin Rachel spends a surprising amount of time with Philip fairly quickly overcoming his initial, passionate suspicions, and then the two of them apparently growing fond of each other.
The central premise of the story is the question of whether Rachel killed her husband -- and subsequently, whether she's trying to kill Philip. The woman likes her tea, or specifically to brew special batches that may or may not be making Philip sick. In the midst of this, it also takes a bit to get all the relationships straight. Philip also has a godfather, Nick (Iain Glen), who seems to serve largely as advisor regarding the estate Philip is about to inherit. How or why Nick came to be Philip's godfather, or exactly what was the nature of the relationship between him and Philip's father, writer-director Roger Michell doesn't seem to feel it's necessary to tell us.
There's a fair lack of polish in the storytelling here -- to put it diplomatically. This movie is not overtly confusing, but it can be at times difficult to follow. Rachel Weisz largely makes up for it with her performance alone. She's as compelling as it gets, and makes Rachel seem most of the time to be genuinely innocent, except when she isn't.
There are some loose ends that Roger Michell evidently tries to tie up, but even that feels a little clumsy. Was that letter the real deal? I had a hard time deciphering whether we were even supposed to know in the end. This story leaves a bit more to mystery than perhaps it should. But these details are almost easy to forget just by virtue of the performances onscreen, and also the lovely landscapes and period costumes and sets. Also there's a couple of moments when these 19th century England characters swear in ways very rarely seen in films like this, which is fun in a weird sort of way.
My Cousin Rachel is imperfect, but offers enough to satisfy specific fans of its genre. Beyond that, it's a movie that's ultimately relegated to the inessential.