By Honor Leahy (Ireland)
The book on which this film is based is one of Daphne du Maurier’s most enjoyable and certainly the most popular after Rebecca. One thing all Du Maurier’s books from Jamaica Inn to The Birds have in common is a creepy atmosphere and nail biting tension. They have also proved irresistible to film directors -in the case of this film to Roger Mitchell.
The plot as many readers will remember concerns Philip, an orphan played by Sam Claflin who is brought up by older cousin Ambrose in nineteenth century Cornwall. It is an all-male household and the two men are very close. Philip is to be the heir of Ambrose’s considerable estate. Ambrose takes a trip to Italy for his health and there although he has been a bachelor for many years he suddenly announces that he is going to marry another cousin-Rachel (Rachel Weisz). Philip receives a letter from Ambrose saying, “Come quickly she is poisoning me.” Philip rushes to Italy but he is too late. Ambrose is dead.
It is at this point that the book really becomes tense. Did she poison Ambrose? Or did he have a brain tumour which drove him mad? Is the Italian lawyer her lover and co-conspirator in Ambrose’s murder? Did she do it for Ambrose’s money or does she have enough of her own? What about all those tisanes she keeps giving to Philip? Philip is sure she has murdered Ambrose and he returns to Cornwall where he finds her already settled in. But when the will is read Philip inherits all as Ambrose never signed a new will when he married. On hearing this, Philip decides he is madly in love with Rachel. But is she using her feminine wiles to finish him off too
His godfather (Iain Glenn) and his daughter, Louisa (Holliday Grainger in very good form) are worried about Philip and Rachel. Louisa has loved Philip forever but he is too stupid to see it. She is madly jealous of Rachel and fuels Philips wavering suspicions about Rachel. Philip is played by Claflin as an immature schoolboy which is mildly irritating but definitely in character.
The whole plot revolves around du Maurier’s favourite theme of jealousy and suspicion. We should be unable to decide whether Rachel is a she-devil or a much wronged widow. Opinion should change several times in the course of the film. And, in addition, will Philip marry her and if he does will he survive? It is this that keeps readers up all night when they read the book.
The film somehow fails to keep us on the edge of our seats. The erotic suspense of the book is lost. The necessary love/hate relationship between Philip and Rachel is just not there. The film is too passive and inert. There is a lot of Merchant and Ivory style movement between tastefully decorated drawing rooms and vicarage gardens. The frocks are beautiful. In addition Philip takes his shirt off quite a lot and this although a pleasant distraction it does not move the plot along.
Rachel Weisz, beautiful as ever, gives a nuanced if slightly bloodless performance as Rachel. But the film overall does not deliver the tension of the book nor does it touch du Maurier’s serious theme of the position of women in nineteenth century England who were dependent on men for their wealth and position. But if you like period drama with lovely frocks, superb gardens and handsome six packs you will enjoy it.