Sunday, May 02, 2010

1952, Year in Review: My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel
Directed by Henry Koster
Starring: Richard Burton, Olivia De Havilland, George Dolenz, Audrey Dalton
Grade: B

In 1952 it was the turn of someone other than Alfred Hitchcock to adapt a Daphne Du Maurier novel. More than a decade after The Second Mrs. De Winter questioned her beloved, shifty Max in Rebecca, it was Richard Burton's Phillip Ashley falling in love with somebody clouded in doubt. The final scrawled words of Ashley's cousin Ambrose, "Rachel my torment", is an unanswerable denunciation of a woman Phillip has never met, but while he looks ready to fight tooth and nail to find out how and why Ambrose died, it doesn't take long for cousin Rachel (De Havilland) to curb these protestations and soften his gaze.

The film's gothic prologue, consisting of a motionless body dangling from gallows, all but guarantees that Henry Koster will grasp at every opportunity to up the dramatic ante of My Cousin Rachel. As it is Du Maurier's already-packed novel sacrificially lends itself to the screen, schematically plotting to deliver the outcome of the tenuous relationship between the besotted Phillip Ashley and his resplendent object of affection. The creakily framed narrative offers less room for Du Maurier's themes to breathe, and so that may discourage some from fully committing to the film's central relationship. Still, even as My Cousin Rachel so brazenly opts for the linear, Du Maurier and Koster ensure that the primary interrogation of Rachel's true motives makes for enthralling viewing.

A broody Richard Burton skulks through most of the running time --unquestionably leading, but clearly not experienced enough to be taken seriously in that category at this point-- like a bratty, fickle simpleton. He inhabits the character's devolved foolishness in moving erratically from extreme concession to resentment, even though not a whole lot around him changes. Upon reflection My Cousin Rachel is unnervingly accurate in its judgment of character, Koster and Burton all the more effective for fuelling paranoia that doesn't fully pay off.

My Cousin Rachel will mostly be remembered for a final twist that rather knocked my socks off. Once divulged it's clear that the film has always been working towards this payoff, but functionally results in a triumph for all involved. This embittered about-turn makes you reconsider much of what you had already taken for granted, and only made me hanker for a repeat viewing. Rachel my torment.

Academy Awards

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Richard Burton
Best Art Direction (B & W)
Best Cinematography (B & W)
Best Costume Design (B &W)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It would be nice to mention that Olivia de Havilland plays the title role of the enigmatic Rachel beautifully and at no time is she overshadowed in the emotional fireworks between the two stars. She did win a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress that year.