My Cousin Rachel
by writer/director Roger Michell
What is it about Daphne du Maurier?
She’s the English novelist who wrote Rebecca, the book which Hitchcock turned into such a brilliant film; Jamaica Inn, which he turned into an indifferent one; the writer of the short story that gave flight to the same director’s The Birds; then another that was the basis for Nicolas Roeg’s truly terrifying, Venice-set Don’t Look Now; and of course My Cousin Rachel, made initially into a film in 1952 starring Olivia de Havilland (miscast, according to du Maurier) and a very young Richard Burton.
All these movies share something in common: the sensation of horror hovering at the edge of the frame, and the sure knowledge that something bad, very bad, is just out of sight. Everyday objects, a seagull or a child’s coat or a packet of laburnum seeds, slowly become shrouded in uncertainty and menace. The banal becomes sinister, as if the light has suddenly changed upon a familiar landscape. There are hidden artefacts locked away in shadowy rooms, odd noises in the night and dark desires, carnal and murderous.
Often both at the same time.
Around every corner something wrong is lurking and it’s usually something very scary indeed.
And yet if you look at pictures of the author you’d think butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth: pretty, demure, polite, slight; from a celebrated and privileged family, surrounded by actors, writers and artists and the rich and famous; a posh education, a Swiss finishing school, then marriage to a handsome soldier, an equerry to royalty. There’s something quintessentially English about Daphne and that’s partly why the shadow beneath, the darkness away from the sunlight, the knowledge always of something hidden, the sense of foreboding and of something wrong in these green and pleasant landscapes is so potent.
This book, and this film, is no exception: gorgeous settings deep in the reassuring British countryside, but with dark secrets; an expression of innocence on a beautiful woman’s face, but something opaque and hidden behind those dark eyes.
Can we trust her? Did she? Didn’t she?
My Cousin Rachel is a thrilling slalom ride of suspense and uncertainty.
Who’s to blame?