I’ve been wanting to see Gone Girl, but the laryngitis-respiratory infection cocktail I’ve got right now means that I would be an object of fear and distraction to fellow film goers, so I had to settle for an alternative. What film, I wondered, might employ a similar ambiguity about whether or not a spouse is a murderer? What other film might tell a tale of an unhealthy romance that might or might not have sinister roots or results? The answer: Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. The film, starring Olivia de Havilland and a very young Richard Burton, never reached the fame of The Birds or Rebecca, but has a similar eerie draw, and (for me at least) lingers longer than either.
Young Philip has been raised by his cousin, Ambrose (John Sutton), and the two are comfortable together in their picturesque Cornish town until Ambrose’s illness leads to their first separation—a trip to Italy. There, Ambrose discovers and falls for their distant cousin, Rachel. Before Philip can adjust to this change in his life, a more somber situation develops: Ambrose is nearing death, and blames his wife for it, claiming she’s trying to do him in. Is his condition the result of a brain tumor, or is it poison?
Femme fatale, yes, but is she a murderer?
A heartbroken Philip (Burton) travels to Italy to uncover the mystery after his cousin’s death. Since all of the estate goes to him, not the wife, Philip might assume things are as innocent as those in Italy suggest, but the circumstances seem shady, and he’s ready to turn Rachel over to the hangman—that is, until he meets her.
Of course, she’s charming, affectionate, worldly, and experienced, and within no time, is hosting gatherings at Philip’s place and then, well, what repressed English boy could resist this cougar?
Before long, Philip’s giving her the family jewels from the vault—which aren’t his yet, as he doesn’t get the estate till he’s 25, his guardian reminds him.
Also, a generous allowance he’s given Rachel? Yes, she’s overdrawing it—by a lot. Philip doesn’t worry. He’s in love! She deserves everything that’s his. He’ll just give his whole estate to her, announcing it Romeo-style on his birthday.
She, in thanks, gives him more than kisses. In Philip’s world, this means she’s going to be his wife. In Rachel’s? Not so much. Philip, whose stupidity and naiveté know no bounds, doesn’t take this well, even starts strangling her. She ends their romance, whether because of his actions, or because with the money, she has no motive to seduce him any longer.
Soon after, Philip falls dangerously ill and finds some seeds that may have been the cause of his brother’s illness—and his.
What happens next I won’t reveal, but let’s just say that the evidence for and against Rachel’s guilt about even out, leaving the viewer to wonder the whole film (and book).
This was my first viewing of the film, and it stays quite true to what I remember of the novel. But viewing it as an adult, I noticed some details I’d missed before. Yes, she may be a murderer, or she may not be, but even if she didn’t try to kill either lover, exactly how wrong and/or inadvisable is Rachel’s behavior? I have some advice for Rachel, which, of course, comes a tad bit late:
Some spoilers ahead—though not the ending.
Never Seduce Crazy
It’s not hard to miss just how big of a dolt this Philip is, so even if she weren’t after his money, seriously, is this someone you seduce? I mean, he’s cute and all, but he’s obsessive. This is a textbook case of a stalker-in-the-making if ever I saw one. Surely a woman as confident and assured as this one knows a case of insane puppy love when she sees it. I’ll alter one of my favorite Arrested Development lines– “Never promise crazy a baby”—to Never seduce crazy. I kept wanting to warn Rachel away: Don’t kiss this fool. He’ll be sending out your wedding invitations next.
Remember: Virginal Boys Don’t Understand Samantha Jones Ways
If Rachel just kinda forgot that those in repressed English villages don’t act like her cosmopolitan friends, shouldn’t that church moment when she arrived late have given her a clue?
She’s so shocked Philip thinks they’re going to marry after they have sex, but would anyone in this community think otherwise? Remember when Samantha Jones hooked up with the inexperienced college boy on Sex and the City who shared her name?
Didn’t turn out so well, right? Filled up her answering machine with love-yous. Arrived at her door screaming through the peep-hole.
That’s Philip for you.
Don’t Marry the Guy Whose Regular Expression Looks Like This:
Whatever her motives or knowledge, Rachel is absolutely right not to marry this dude. I can just see it: She tries to hang out with her friends, and he’s there, watching. She leaves the house and he’s hiring private detectives. This woman has lived on her own, experienced an unusual degree of freedom for a woman of her time, and he doesn’t even want her to return to Italy—ever. She may make some dumb mistakes, but Rachel is not that foolish.
Don’t Live with the Stalker after You Ditch Him
Why does Rachel remain in the house? Yes, I can understand for appearance’s sake, she might stay a little after the inheritance is given to her. But this is one angry guy. And, of course, dangerous as he fears she is, he’s the one going for the throat when he doesn’t get his way.
Did she do it? Did she poison her husband?
She has suspicious ways. Rachel’s spendthrift tendencies, of course, are undeniable. This woman loves the money. Whether it’s to help her pal-maybe-lover back in Italy or not, she takes whatever anyone will give her with no regrets. It’s not hard to believe her gold-digger impulses brought her to England in the first place, and those motives seem sinister enough that she may have just killed for them.
Of course, it’s possible that she did love Ambrose, and wanted to meet his cousin. I’m not sure I buy that the one precludes the other. I don’t have to admire her greed, but I don’t have to believe that’s all there is to her either.
It’s the ambiguity I love about the film. Hopefully, Gone Girl is just as good (no spoilers on that, please!)