Career journalist Andrew Bloomenthal has covered everything from high finance to the film trade. He is the award-winning filmmaker of the noir thriller Sordid Things. He lives in Los Angeles. More information can be found on Andrew’s site: www.andrewjbloomenthal.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ABloomenthal
Did she or didn’t she poison her husband? That’s the prevailing question in My Cousin Rachel, directed by British filmmaker Roger Michell, who adapted the script from the 1951 Daphne du Maurier classic. The titular ‘Rachel’ is the mysterious and beautiful Rachel Ashley (Rachel Weisz), an Englishwoman living it up in Florence, who may or may not have murdered Ambrose Ashley, who came to Italy for a visit, never to return home again.
In the “she did it” column, Rachel was widowed under shadowy circumstances before. And this time around, she fled town just moments after Ambrose took his final breath. Even more damning: in letters home, Ambrose claimed his bride was holding him prisoner, with murder on her mind. Then again, if his death certificate is to be believed, Ambrose died from a brain tumor, and his rantings were nothing more than the paranoid delusions of an ailing mind.
It’s all very back and forth, but not for Ambrose’s cousin and heir Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), a petulant man-child who vows revenge against the woman he believes killed his beloved guardian. But when Rachel unexpectedly materializes at Ambrose’s estate, Philip falls under her seductive spell. It’s not long before he signs over his newly-won inheritance to his beguiling guest.
So, is Rachel a man-eating, inheritance-chasing gold-digger? Or merely a sexually-forward ahead-of-her-time feminist? Either way, Philip is extraordinarily naïve—not surprising, given how he was raised in a male-dominated home that’s more pre-Victorian frat house than stately English manor. Philip knows nothing about women—especially Rachel.
“Rachel feels like she comes from another world. She plays her cards quite close to her chest and takes pleasure in her own sexuality, which were shocking ideas for 1839,” explains Roger Michell. “For Philip, she’s the woman who fell to earth.”
Like du Maurier’s novel, Michell kept Rachel’s motives shrouded in ambiguity—even from the woman portraying her. Says the Oscar-winning Weisz: “The whole fun of the film is trying to figure out whether Rachel can be trusted. This really made me want to do this project.”
Rachel Weisz and Roger Michell spoke to Script magazine about bringing this compelling tale to life.
SCRIPT: Rachel, now that you’ve lived with this story for so long, do you think Rachel poisoned poor Ambrose?
Rachel Weisz: People come away from the film absolutely convinced one way or the other. They don’t think it’s ambiguous at all, which I find really fascinating. But if I didn’t tell Roger what I thought, I can’t tell you what I think. You’d have to kill me first!
SCRIPT: I’ll rephrase the question: if your character offers me a cup of tea, should I refuse it?
RW: (Laughs) Well things that are good for you usually taste bad, right? Healthy stuff tastes bad.
SCRIPT: Was it a tough acting job, to strike the right notes of ambiguity?
RW: I would argue that ambiguity is not actable, because for me, acting is moment to moment. So your question is really a directorial thing, in that Roger would give me adjustments which might have been confusing to me at the time, but I did them, because I’m not actually telling the story in the way that you’re asking me. Roger, I think you have to answer this, because I wasn’t really playing a game. It’s the filmmaking that does that, right?
Roger Michell: It’s a good principle you established—playing each scene for what it was about, and getting to the emotional truth of that moment. Nowhere in the film do you feel like you’re being emotionally manipulated by Rachel. When she cries, or when she’s sad, or when she’s charming, you don’t feel as if she’s doing it for guile or purpose. She’s doing it because that’s her truth in that moment, and that’s why everyone around her is so dazzled by her. She’s so alive compared to them, and even if she was a poisoner, you kind of forgive her. She’s like a candle, surrounded by moths.
SCRIPT: Speaking of candles, Rachel, there’s an ambitious unbroken shot where you traverse the room to light all of the candelabras, while you’re engaged in a deep conversation with Philip. Was it difficult to hit all of your physical marks while delivering the lines with the correct emotional tone?
RW: That was the first scene we shot, if I remember correctly.
RM: Yeah, it was.
RW: I don’t know if I was conscious of the fact that Rachel was lighting up the room. Your question makes it sound incredibly complicated, but Roger actually made it quite simple. There was a path across the room to take, and there were things to light, and I knew the lines in advance. It’s a skill you learn.
RM: Sometimes it can be oddly liberating for the actors when there’s complex physical action during a scene, because it means they’re doing work. They’re concentrating on lighting the candles, whilst having to say a lot of stuff, which is freeing and delightful.
SCRIPT: Rachel, does professional experience give you an ability above other actors, to hit your marks and maintain continuity from shot to shot?
RW: I’ll take that as a complement, but I agree with Roger that there are many actors—and I’m definitely one of them, who do well when we are given what we call “business” to do—actions like cooking or playing a game. It sounds counterintuitive, but when you have something to take your mind off what you’re saying, it can liberate you to say it in the most natural way possible.
SCRIPT: Does wardrobe likewise enhance your performance? Specifically, did the inky black veil you wore for much of the film, help you become the cloaked and mysterious character you had to be?
RW: I’m probably repeating myself, but I don’t really know how to play mystery. Mystery is something that comes with many, many things colliding in the narrative. To me, the veil reminds me of a Spanish painting, like an El Greco or Goya painting. Very high fashion, in a fabulous way—respectful of my dead husband, obviously.
SCRIPT: There’s a pivotal scene where the heirloom pearl necklace Philip gave Rachel breaks, and pearls cascade down the staircase. Did you film many takes of that scene?
RW: Yes, and we had to rethread the necklace every time!
RM: We had a special person who came to the set that day, who was the pearl threader. She was great because we only had three necklaces, so she had to really be nimble with her fingers to rethread each necklace so we were never held up between takes, and we never were.
RW: Yeah, there was no CGI in that scene.
SCRIPT: Really? I was wondering how you captured the pearls perfectly bouncing down each step.
RM: If you shoot it enough times, eventually they bounce just the right way.
RW: It’s the same thing with actors.
SCRIPT: Finally, I noticed a lot of pedestrian physical activities portrayed throughout the film, such as people culling wheat in a field, or bailing hay in the barn, or a child plucking a chicken—
RM: That’s my daughter plucking that chicken. She’s very proud.
SCRIPT: She was very convincing.
RM: I’ll tell her.
SCRIPT: So how do you decide what dialogue to pair with each specific action?
RM: Blimey. Well you want to feel that the real world is operating, and this version of the world is an agrarian society in the 1830s. It may not be a terribly accurate version, but I wanted it to at least look accurate. I was influenced by the earlier film version of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, which made a huge impact on me, in the way I believed what all the people in the fields were doing. And I wanted it to feel like Philip knew his way around the hayrick and knew his way around a wheat field, but all of these things were moderated by compromise. I mean, I wanted that field to be a filled with standing wheat, with a hundred men harvesting the crop, but we shot the film in the spring, and there was no wheat, so I begged a farmer in Devon to grow his field at least boot height, to get the feeling of a vast expanse covered in wheat. All I can do is hope most of the people are hoodwinked most of the time. What else can you do when you’re making a film?