Daphne du Maurier’s novel – somewhere between a British noir and a bodice-ripper – was given a Hollywood mounting in 1952, with young Richard Burton during the months when he was gloweringly beautiful and the always-underrated Olivia de Havilland. There was a 1983 TV serial with Geraldine Chaplin too – and it’s such a perfectly-turned tale that it’s a wonder it’s taken this long for another big-screen version, which duly and aptly casts Sam Claflin as Philip, the clueless young narrator, and Rachel Weisz as his glamorous cousin-archenemy-inlaw-lover, whom he at first believes to be the murderer of his other cousin (whom she married in Italy – always a telltale sign of treachery and trouble in du Maurier) then becomes besotted by, then starts suspecting of administering slow poison in her tea infusions. Though Rachel is a projection-of-all-desires-and-horrors figure like Rebecca, this inverts the usual gothic theme by making the young man an imperilled, trembling, vacillating idiot – essentially, a gothic heroine in britches.
Writer-director Roger Michell, an old hand at set text cinema, carefully adapts the piece, perhaps filing the edges off du Maurier’s stabs at sending up the whole form by taking it seriously. The whole point of the story is that the hero is a dolt who never does anything right (or by halves) – which means alienating his steady girlfriend (Holliday Grainger, buttoning her generous lower lip a lot) and her kindly old uncle (Iain Glen, genial enough to be a red herring suspect) and making all manner of accusations at the worst possible time. He is also given to galloping along crumbling clifftop roads at high speeds and climbing ivy thickets to get to his cousin’s window, which Claflin does in dashing enough manner – though a more adventurous director than Michell (Paul Verhoevem, say) might have played up the ludicrousness which goes along with the Hitchcockian suspense business of whether the leading lady is a murderess or not and what exactly her designs on Philip and the family dosh (plus estates, plus rustical peasants) are.
Weisz can be all things to all men, and does well by being all possible things to this one man – she’s sexy, sinister, disarming, funny, sweet and furious, though she isn’t quite dangerous enough to pull it all off at once. As a thriller, it’s on the tame side – and as a roll-in-the-clover romance, it’s a bit chaste. Hitchcock was drawn to du Maurier (three films), though they didn’t always get on – and he would have siezed on incidents Michell throws away (a second sex scene which verges on rape, the other cousin’s descent into perhaps STD-caused dementia) to up the quease quotient. It’s set in that movie Cornwall where the main servant has a Yorkshire accent and the villagers – whether comedy toffs like the vicar and daughters, or folksinging peasants like the rest – are just set dressing while the gentry run about making fools of themselves.