Rachel Weisz Plays An Early Feminist And A Possible Murderess In ‘My Cousin Rachel’

Rachel Weisz plays the subject of Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, an adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel, yet the plot of the film is less about Rachel and more about those who interact with her within the story. As Ms. Weisz details in a recent interview, the period piece deals with a mystery surrounding the question of Rachel Ashley’s guilt in the murder of her cousin’s (Sam Claflin) guardian, but, at its core, My Cousin Rachel explores themes of feminism. While equality for women was virtually unheard of within the historical period in which My Cousin Rachel is set, Weisz suggests the earliest rumblings of feminism were already beginning to disrupt the status quo.

Rachel Weisz Shines In My Cousin Rachel

To say that Rachel Weisz is not the star of this film may be overstating the matter, but, as Metro points out, the build up to the introduction of Weisz’s character lends a darker, more mysterious nature to Rachel. Adding to that aura of suspense, Rachel makes a fashionably late entrance. Rachel Ashley isn’t seen until 20 minutes into the film and, by then, audiences have already become well acquainted with her cousin and the hero of the story, Phillip (Claflin).

My Cousin Rachel, Rachel Weisz
‘My Cousin Rachel’ gave Rachel Weisz an opportunity to explore the murder mystery from a unique angle. [Image by Fox Searchlight Pictures]

Convinced that Rachel has murdered his guardian/cousin (also played by Claflin), who was also Rachel’s husband, Phillip seeks out Weisz’s character with a vengeful eye. My Cousin Rachel delves into the facts of the mystery early on, focusing on Phillip’s need to get justice for his dead cousin by killing his living one.

As My Cousin Rachel progresses, however, Ms. Weisz turns on her charm and entices the hearts of audiences, as well as that of Phillip. His thirst for revenge is soon dissuaded by his sudden adoration of his cousin Rachel. While Phillip falls under her spell, viewers are left wondering what Rachel has up her sleeve.

Perhaps she’s genuinely interested in Phillip? Or is it more likely that Rachel is about to make Phillip her next victim?

Rachel Weisz On Solving The Mystery Of My Cousin Rachel And Themes Of Early Feminism

My Cousin Rachel has already been adapted for film once before. In a 1952 film, silver screen legends Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton took on the lead roles, so, as Rachel Weisz tells Glamour, the actress felt it was necessary to go the extra mile to make the 2017 version her own. She went back to both the Daphne Du Maurier novel and the 1952 film with the intention of deciding once and for all whether Rachel Ashley was guilty or innocent and she incorporated that verdict into how she played her character.

What Weisz finds more fascinating than the truth of her character is the way in which film fans decide Rachel’s guilt or innocence for themselves. The actress says nearly everyone comes away from My Cousin Rachel on one side of the fence or the other, feeling absolutely convinced that their opinion is the correct one.

My Cousin Rachel, feminism, sexual awakening
‘My Cousin Rachel’ explores themes of feminism and an unlikely sexual awakening. [Image by Fox Searchlight Pictures]

“What’s been fascinating is speaking to people who come out of the film who actually haven’t thought its ambiguous but have been absolutely sure she’s innocent or absolutely sure she’s guilty,” says Ms. Weisz. “They’ve argued very passionately their points of view, and that I’ve found very fascinating.”

In talking about the setting of My Cousin Rachel, Weisz points out that there’s an incongruous social setting between the time in which the book was written (1951) and the mid-nineteenth century in which the story takes place. For that reason, elements of the early feminist movement can be found in the story, even though certain feminist ideas might not have been as prevalent in that historical period.

Specifically, Ms. Weisz points to Rachel’s sexual rebellion, something that might have been more appropriate for something set in the early 1960s instead of the 1800s.

“She believes she’s sexually free and can sleep with whom she wants to without feeling any guilt. She doesn’t have any sense of sexual shame; she doesn’t want to just be a wife and a possession,” explains Weisz. “She has all of these very modern ideas for a woman of her time.”

Even Rachel Weisz admits such ideas were unheard of and often considered unorthodox for the era. Citing Mary Wollstonecraft as one feminist writer of the era, Weisz suggests that feminism of that period was cleverly disguised in literature with metaphors and flights of fancy. Never was it as directly addressed as in My Cousin Rachel.

My Cousin Rachel, starring Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, and Iain Glen, is currently showing in theaters.

[Featured Image by Fox Searchlight Pictures]