My Cousin Rachel **

Curiously uninvolving Gothic mystery from “Notting Hill” director Roger Michell nails its setting and time period but serves up flavorless characters devoid of appeal or spark. 

Is it worth $10? No 

“My Cousin Rachel” promises roiling passions and dastardly deeds set against an enticing 19th century backdrop, but it left this critic with a bad case of the chills. The second big-screen adaptation of the novel by English author Daphne du Maurier (“Rebecca,” “Don't Look Now”) is a handsomely mounted affair that takes full advantage of Cornwall's windswept vistas, but such care for period detail does not extend to the characters.

It's doubly disappointing, not only because this strangely inert production wastes a strong cast headlined by Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin, but also because it marks a return for director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “Changing Lanes”) to his costume drama roots. The filmmaker, whose solid, pared-down 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's “Persuasion” put him on the map stateside, seems to just be going through the motions here, showing little effort to make viewers invested in his brooding tale of vengeance and duplicity.

But is it really about duplicity? “Did she? Didn't she?” Philip Ashley (Claflin) intones in tortured voiceover narration that opens the film. The “she” in question is the titular character (Weisz), who marries Philip's older (and wealthy) cousin Ambrose (also Claflin, seen briefly in flashback), the man who ends up raising our protagonist after he becomes an orphan. Philip goes off to school but eventually loses interest, and he returns to Ambrose's large country estate on the Cornish coast. Health problems cause Ambrose to him to spend winters in warmer climates, and it's in Florence where he meets and weds Rachel.

Letters from Italy show the elder Ashley in good spirits ... that is, until Philip receives one that appears to have been written hastily, warning of ill health and Orwellian conduct by his bride. Concerned for his guardian, Philip hastily goes to his cousin's villa in Florence, but it's too late. A mustached stranger (Pierfrancesco Favino) introduces himself as Rachel's friend Enrico Rainaldi and informs the bewildered lad that Ambrose is dead and Rachel has taken off.

Philip returns to England brokenhearted and resolute that he will make this woman suffer. His godfather, Nick Kendall (“Game of Thrones'” Iain Glen), reminds him that he will inherit Ambrose's estate and fortune on his 25th birthday. Then Rachel shows up in Cornwall and, in the first of way too many ill-advised decisions, Philip invites her to stay at the estate.

The dark pas de deux that ensues would have made for absorbing fare if Philip and Rachel had been more evenly matched. As played by Claflin, however, the sullen heir is in way over his head, in all the wrong ways. Michell purposely delays our initial glance at the grieving widow, the better to enhance the sense of mystery surrounding her like her lace veil. But the halting, tentative interaction between the leads not only prevents viewers from becoming ensnared in Rachel's web; it also tests our patience with the brooding sourpuss we're supposed to be rooting for. (Richard Burton, in his U.S. screen debut, played Philip in 20th Century Fox's 1952 adaptation.)

It would have probably helped if Philip, who's 24 when he first meets Rachel, had been played by a younger, more baby-faced actor, but Claflin, who was a couple of months shy of his 30th birthday when “My Cousin Rachel” went before the cameras, looks way too old to be acting with such foolhardy naïvété. Instead of building suspense about the danger he might be in, the “Hunger Games” star only succeeds in breeding contempt from us. Philip is a dolt and a wanker, and Claflin fails to make his foul mood interesting. His emotional temperature is a gray cloud that quickly grows tiresome.

Weisz fares considerably better, a notable feat, given that she has the far trickier role. Her Rachel is proper and mournful one moment, sphinx-like and impenetrable the next, and then she turns on the charm, especially when serving her own special tea, brewed with Italian infusions. But her character is cut off at the knees, because Michell doesn't show much desire to find out what makes her tick, and Weisz's chemistry with Claflin, sorry to report, is pretty negligible.

But even as “My Cousin Rachel” turns into a slog, it's never quite as dreary as, by all rights, it should be. It's clear Michell knows how to fill a widescreen frame and, aided by cinematographer Mike Eley, production designer Alice Normington and costume designer Dinah Collin, he makes the 1830s come alive with unshowy efficiency.

It's understandable that Michell takes the material seriously, but the one missing element that could have infused some life into this atmospheric yarn is a sense of bemused irony that Alfred Hitchcock imbued, to varying degrees, into his adaptations of “Rebecca” and “The Birds” (itself adapted from a story by du Maurier). Moments of spine-tingling unease co-existed with the celebrated auteur's storytelling zeal in those films. Just think of the scenes in “Notorious” where Ingrid Bergman realizes she's being poisoned with tea, and it gives you an idea what Hitch could have done with du Maurier's enigmatic widow.

By contrast, Michell's more workmanlike approach moves things along briskly, at least when the narrative isn't bogged down in inheritance legalese, but the end result lacks seasoning. It looks and sounds the part, no thanks to a disquieting, overly intrusive music score by Rael Jones, but “Rachel's” brand of sunbaked Gothic is hollow at its core and a bit of a chore to sit through. Michell eventually rewards viewers' patience with a skillfully executed climax that veers slightly from du Maurier's denouement, but it's too little, too late. “My Cousin Rachel” aims to wrap its dark tendrils around you, but it's little more than weak-tea matinee fodder. It's the audience who gets taken for a sucker.

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