My Cousin Rachel (2017) and Male Entitlement

Rachel Weisz, in the press junket for My Cousin Rachel (2017), revealed that the only way for her to handle shooting the Cornish Gothic melodrama was to definitively decide whether her character, the eponymous Rachel, was guilty or not. Weisz did not reveal this decision to her director, Roger Michell, nor her co-star, Sam Claflin — both of whom came to their own secret conclusions. Mark Kermode in reviews of the film has stated that this is the source of its magic — the tension on screen generated by the feeling that Weisz made one decision and Roger Michell had made another. The film’s opening tag line — “Did she? Didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” — emphasises the point that this ambiguity is the linchpin upon which the narrative drama turns. Yet, upon watching, it seems any ambiguity is shot through with Philip’s snide, manipulative childishness, robbing the viewer of any shred of sympathy for his whining and simpering. My Cousin Rachel (2017), a Gothic drama centred on the mystery of an enigmatic heroine, takes on a dark shade of danger in 2017, instead telling the tale of how dangerous rejected men can be.

Rachel, consistently struggling to accommodate her demanding, petulant cousin Philip, and continually struck, horrified, by his resemblance to her dead, abusive husband, is ultimately nothing more frightening than woman fighting to carve out independence in a world designed to deny her it. Roger Michell’s screenplay astutely gestures towards the idea that, for a Victorian populace, this quest for self-hood would indeed have rendered Rachel frightening, threatening — even mad. Yet through the eyes of a twenty-first century audience it is Philip’s entitlement that provides this discomfort. Kermode hits the nail on the wet, puppyish head by referring to Philip as a “man-boy”. Yes, Claflin’s Philip is young — some would say ludicrously young for the 31-year-old actor — but his sense of ownership over Rachel is disconcerting to the point of upsetting, and his misguided attempts to woo her become increasingly obsessive, suffocating, and even violent. I’m not sure how an audience could see Philip choking Rachel on the stairs and be convinced of his innocence as a poor lamb driven to distraction by her womanly wiles. The very notion that Philip’s behaviour is even slightly justified by Rachel’s sensuality and complexity is part of a toxic narrative whereby men are incapable of controlling their animalistic desires. It’s the same societal drive that forces school girls to cover their shoulders so as not to “distract” their male peers. It is the same rhetoric that blames victims for existing, and for being too tempting, too undressed.

Philip comes to the conclusion that Rachel is guilty within minutes of discovering his uncle’s death, without a shred of evidence, seemingly motivated by a hatred of or total unfamiliarity with women. To Philip women are strange, alien creatures — the only women allowed in his house growing up were the dogs. Philip is perplexed by the idea that his uncle would ever want to marry, convinced that his own companionship is more than satisfactory. It is not just women that Philip is ignorant to, but the idea that a man would ever be attracted to one, let alone need one. It is within this context that Rachel is portrayed as alien — while her gender is strange and mysterious to Philip, she is also foreign, from a foreign land, speaking a foreign tongue, drinking foreign tea, with foreign friends. Michell taps into a deep disquiet with the unfamiliar and the unknown. The very decision to have both uncle Ambrose and his heir, Philip, played by Claflin, suggests a fixedness, a stasis, an unchangingness that Rachel punctures with her arrival and her many shades of difference. It is this very difference that fuels Philip’s suspicion. It is the strange, Italian brews that the cinematography seems to suggest are the source of the poison. It is the unfounded concern that Rachel is somehow sending money abroad that leads Philip to question her motives (how unpatriotic! How frivolous! A woman spending her own income!). Indeed, Rachel is seen by Philip as a victim — frail, mourning, constantly on the verge of tears — until he gifts her with economic independence, and it is only then that she becomes a dangerous creature. Philip is a rampant misogynist, a spoilt child, and emblematic of entitled manbabies everywhere who think they have a right to a woman’s body. The sort of man who legitimately believes in the “friendzone”. The sort of many who, in the twenty-first century, would start a sentence with “but not all men…” without a trace of irony. Philip is incapable of even beginning to process the idea that Rachel may not want him — may not want any man, may just wish to live her life the way she wishes to live it. Tim Robey discusses the many ways in which the audience is likely to lose patience with Philip, describing him as “a suspicious misogynist” before stating that:

“Claflin has to go to one extreme, and one only: Philip, gradually bewitched, makes a series of decisions that could threaten to capsize our sympathies. He’s cavalier with heirlooms, doesn’t listen to his godfather (Iain Glen), shuns the attentions of his sweet would-be soulmate (Holliday Grainger) — and this before legally entrusting his whole fortune into Rachel’s name, with little to go on but puppy love.”

“Puppy love” seems like too tame, too defanged a term for Philip’s vehement belief that he is saving Rachel, and that she, in turn, should give herself over to him. Even the term “manboy”, while an accurate representation of Philip’s immaturity, seems to express too softly the determination with which he pursues Rachel, his hatred of her species, his desire to demonise her, villainise her, and ultimately fatally endanger her life, rather than accept that cannot have her. It’s the reason why women smile uncomfortably but politely at men who aggressively pursue them in bars. It’s the same reason why women are murdered by the men they reject. It’s a sense of entitlement to and ownership of the objectified female body that renders the woman an archetype — angel, whore — rather than a three-dimensional human being. Rachel is an angel when she allows Philip in her bed and a demoness when she denies him. The question is not “Did she? Didn’t she?” because the question is redundant. It is not Rachel Weisz or Roger Michell’s decision as to whether Rachel is guilty, or even, in this version, Daphne du Maurier’s — it is Philip’s perspective of her, fluid and unstable and shifting, and entirely dependent upon how obediently she conforms to his desires and whims. It is not about whether Rachel killed Ambrose or didn’t — it’s about whether she agrees to marry Philip. There is an alternate version of My Couisn Rachel whereby the protagonist marries Philip and he lives happily ever after, never suspicious of his entrapped bride. To answer the question of “Who’s to blame?”, the answer seems explicitly obvious — Philip, his puppy face, and the culture of toxic masculinity he represents.

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