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Second-rate melodrama

‘My Cousin Rachel’ doesn’t satisfy



Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz in “My Cousin Rachel”

From the novel by Daphne du Maurier, author behind two Alfred Hitchcock classics (“Rebecca” and “The Birds”), “My Cousin Rachel” is the tale of a young British 19th century aristocrat named Philip who becomes seduced by the target of his vengeance. The thriller revolves around a possibly poisoned tea, and that toxic element within a soothing beverage serves as a metaphor of the movie as a whole.

“My Cousin Rachel” is a piping pot of well-crafted suspense, yet it succumbs to one lethal liability that contaminates the entire brew: a young actor who’s out of his depth.

Convinced that the untimely death of his cousin Ambrose was at the hands of Ambrose’s widow Rachel, Philip sets a plan to expose the murderous scheme of this apparent black widow—whom he’s never met—and avenge his beloved Ambrose. That strategy abruptly changes when Philip actually meets Rachel (Academy Award-winner Rachel Weisz), promptly gets weak in the knees, and swoons with passion rather than retribution. 

This central shift, and actor Sam Claflin’s complete inability to sell it, undercuts what is otherwise a handsomely mounted psychodrama that’s rich in period detail and genre atmosphere. Philip’s youthful pride, not so dissimilar to that of an entitled millennial, isn’t enough to justify his dramatic swing because that swing contradicts his own internal logic.

Within the span of a single encounter, Philip flips his merciless conviction to compulsive attraction. Once Rachel’s most aggressive adversary (unbeknownst to her), Philip becomes her staunchest defender and would-be lover. Our sense of “What just happened?” is as strong as his, except for the bizarre fact that Philip lacks the self-awareness, reflection, or shock to ask that question of himself. Philip is, in modern vernacular, completely whipped. 

This is particularly baffling considering how subtle Rachel’s charms initially are. Weisz plays these demurred calculations with superb nuance. The widow she portrays is certainly not the wretch that Philip has concocted in his mind, through Ambrose’s final letters. If she’s spinning a web she’s doing it with humility, not seduction. At most, Philip’s first response to Rachel’s modesty should be circumspect, or an understandable second-guessing. Instead, he becomes absolutely smitten. 

With Claflin’s limited range, director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) has backed his otherwise superlative adaptation into an impossible corner. The script either needs a more gradual turn for Philip to make or, more simply, needs Claflin (“The Hunger Games” franchise) to play the turn as scripted but more gradually, building it toward Philip’s declaration to Rachel: “You’re not the woman I hated.” 

That line should be Philip’s turning point, where the switch is flipped, and come at the apex of a steady hypnotized conversion. Instead, the sentiment is stated well past Philip’s established fawning delusion. He’s supposed to be spellbound but merely comes off as foolish.

Lush images of refined interiors and sweeping shots of great English locales give “My Cousin Rachel” an artistic precision that makes up for a lot, as does Weisz who imbues the film with whatever level of intrigue it may possess. But as Philip descends into lustful madness, the movie descends into second-rate melodrama. It becomes increasingly annoying, not tense, to watch someone this stupid. 

An apparent inevitability hangs over the proceedings as well, causing you to feel one step ahead of the story at any given point. This places another drag on what’s meant to be mysterious. Yet for the capper, it has the gall to throw in a final twist. Intended to broaden our perception of everything we’ve come to believe, it actually makes the whole experience that much more unsatisfying. 

“My Cousin Rachel” doesn’t keep you on edge. It only tries your patience.


FULL CIRCLE

A brief rundown of what’s happening at the Circle Cinema

OPENING JUNE 23

Beatriz at Dinner
This sophisticated dark comedy, about an Hispanic health practitioner who’s invited to a party of rich white elites, has been hailed as the first great film of the Trump era. Starring Selma Hayek and John Lithgow, from director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White (“The Good Girl”). An official selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Rated R.

Bang! The Bert Berns Story
E-Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt narrates this documentary about Bert Berns, the 1960s songwriter/producer known as “The White Soul Brother” who also had mafia ties. Behind such hits like “Twist and Shout” and “Hang on Sloopy,” Berns helped launch the career of Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, and others. Includes pre-show trivia and vinyl giveaways with host Steve Higgins. Not Rated.

OPENING JUNE 30

The Beguiled
Winner of Best Director for Sophia Coppola at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, this period piece thriller set during the Civil War lives up to its name as a wounded Union soldier stirs tension, division, and confusion amongst the sheltered young women of a Virginia girls school. Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. Rated R.

The Hero
Sam Elliott stars in a role tailor-made for his iconic Western persona. He plays an aging film actor at the end of his career who, with the help of a younger woman, begins to face the regrets of his broken family and impending mortality. From writer/director Brett Haley (“I’ll See You in my Dreams”), this co-stars Nick Offerman and Laura Prepon. Rated R.

The Bad Batch
Set in the wasteland of a dystopian Texas, a young woman fights for survival after she’s captured by a clan of cannibals. From director Ana Lily Amirpour, the hailed auteur of the visionary horror drama “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” this stars Jason Momoa, Suki Waterhouse, Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi, and Jim Carrey. Rated R.

SPECIAL EVENTS

Eraserhead (1977)
Graveyard Shift celebrates the 40th Anniversary of the debut film from David Lynch. Produced while Lynch was still a student at the American Film Institute, this is a surreal fable about male paranoia, from meeting the opposite sex to the horrors of his newly born mutant child. A landmark of independent cinema that has become a cult classic. Rated R. Fri., June 23 & Sat., June 24, 10pm

The Surgery Ship
This free event will screen the powerful documentary about a ship of doctors and nurses that travels the coast of West Africa. As they bring aid to some of the poorest nations on the earth, this volunteer humanitarian crew is overwhelmed by more needs than they can meet. Q&A follows with current and past ship volunteers, hosted by Dr. Todd & Joli Beasley and Dr. Brian & Jami Barki Tue., June 27, 7pm

Paprika (2007)
Anime Club presents this visionary, psychedelic modern-day classic. It’s the futuristic tale of a young woman who, following the theft of a machine that helps therapists enter their patient’s dreams, seeks to quell societal chaos. From director Satoshi Kon, it questions the limits of science and the reach of Big Brother. Rated R. Fri., June 30 & Sat., July 1, 10pm

Behind the lens: Coppola in Tulsa
A free Tulsa FMAC panel and photo showcase from behind the scenes of Coppola’s “Rumble Fish” and “The Outsiders,” featuring Tulsa photographers Joe Cervantez, Western Doughty, Gaylord Oscar Herron. Moderated by Chuck Foxen. Wed., June 28. Reception at 5:30pm, panel at 7.

For more from Jeff, read his review of Oren Moverman’s “The Dinner.”

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