Widowhood makes My Cousin Rachel a modern girl


With several big budget films in theaters, we take a look at the smaller drama My Cousin Rachel and discuss whether it’s worth watching in theaters.

(Spoiler warning as we discuss some details of the plot of My Cousin Rachel)

If Wonder Woman left you wanting more stories about independent, charming, horse-riding brunette women, you’re in luck: My Cousin Rachel is also in theaters.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the film is based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel and centers on Philip (Sam Claflin), a young man who was raised by his cousin Ambrose. Philip is certain that Ambrose was murdered by his wife, Rachel (Rachel Weisz). And then … he’s not so certain.

To be fair, it’s pretty hard to believe anything negative about Rachel at first. She’s kind, smart, witty, and doesn’t shy away from dirty jokes. She is a lady of the upper class but isn’t a snob; she can make friends with anyone. It’s really not surprising that Philip falls for her.

What is surprising is Rachel’s lukewarm reaction to the rich and handsome Philip as a suitor. If My Cousin Rachel was set in contemporary times or even in the late-20th century, Rachel’s ambivalence about marriage would be a fairly standard storyline. But the film isn’t contemporary; it’s a costume drama set circa the late 1800s. You know, when a woman’s desire for autonomy was a joke, if not outright ignored.

The fairly modern and feminist leanings of My Cousin Rachel set it apart from other gothic dramas or period pieces. Rachel might be dressed in widow’s weeds and don a black veil in public, but otherwise she seems impervious to her culture’s gender expectations. Personality-wise, I could see her being good friends with Elizabeth of The Americans.

The most obvious way Rachel goes against the grain is her attitude towards sex and marriage. She flirts with Philip and initiates a sexual relationship with him, but turns down his marriage proposal. She is more amused with his grand romantic gestures than moved. At one point, she jokes to Philip that she’s too old to play Juliet. Rachel could not care less about her reputation or what anyone thinks of her. She seems genuinely sorry that she can’t return Philip’s feelings, but remains unswayed. She likes sex and she likes living her life on her own. In Rachel’s mind, there’s no need for the two to be mutually exclusive.

The character’s modern-to-us/radical-for-her views on life extend beyond the sex-positive. She doesn’t ask Philip for money even though Ambrose left her with nothing. When she does come into money, however, she is confident and savvy enough to manage it by herself. She mourns her husband and his companionship but enjoys the freedom widowhood offers her. Rachel also boasts a supportive, non-judgmental nature towards a friend who just happens to be gay. And, when Philip’s insecurity becomes violent, she doesn’t submit to his demands. She stands her ground and does what she needs to do to protect herself.

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For the record, there are suggestions throughout the entire film that Rachel might not be as wonderful as she seems. Like Ambrose, Philip grows sick and suspects Rachel’s home-brewed tea might be poisoned. And Weisz’s face is almost always sculpted into an inscrutable, bemused mask. The film provides no concrete answers about Rachel’s morality, or lack thereof. But, for my money, the central conflict of My Cousin Rachel comes down to an avant-garde, self-reliant woman refusing to allow a dude to dictate her life.