A number of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels have been successfully adapted for the cinema. Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), The Birds (1963) – all directed by Alfred Hitchcock – and Don’t Look Now (1973) had in common an unsettling, threatening strangeness about them. You get the feeling that Roger Michel’s latest movie might also have striven for that mood, but unsuccessfully. Philip (Sam Claflin) lives on an inherited estate in nineteenth-century England.
His cousin – the man who raised him from childhood – has died abroad under mysterious circumstances, having sent letters with secret messages intimating that his wife Rachel (Rachel Weisz) may have been responsible for his declining health. After her husband’s death, Rachel travels to Philip’s idyllic rural home not knowing that his feelings towards her are bitterly suspicious and unwelcoming. It’s an edgy situation, but the brooding drama that you expect to unfold vanishes into cheesiness the minute that Philip meets Rachel – he falls in love with her like a schoolboy. All the tension is lost as the couple embark on an unconvincing romantic liaison. Rachel’s behaviour is only vaguely seen to be not above question.
It is as though Michel is at pains to prevent his audience from taking a set against her. Weisz plays her part as the ice maiden but without a lot of psychological depth, so the doubt in which her motives might be shrouded is never allowed to fully develop. Philip’s foolishness as the smitten young man takes precedence while the story flounders and the reveal at the end is neither surprising nor moving. Mike Eley’s cinematography is gorgeous, Dinah Collin’s costume design is authentic and meticulous down to the last stitch, and there are set pieces that breathe life into an otherwise rather tepid film – most notably when Philip puts on a rousing Christmas party in the barn for all of his retainers – but the cliff-top climax seems more contrived on the screen than it does on the page.