Richard Burton (in his first major screen role) plays Philip Ashley, a young man raised by his older cousin Ambrose on an isolated estate along the Cornish coast. The two men have a close relationship, as evidenced by Philip’s description of Ambrose as “father, brother, friend--everything in the world to me.” Thus, Philip is surprised when his cousin departs for an indefinite holiday in Italy for health reasons. That surprise only grows when he receives a letter from Ambrose announcing his marriage to Rachel Sangalletti, a widowed distant cousin. Weeks later, Philip receives a series of disturbing letters in which Ambrose accuses Rachel of trying to kill him. Philip rushes to Florence to see his cousin, only to learn that Ambrose has died and Rachel has vanished.
|Philip confronts his cousin's widow.|
|Philip searches for murder evidence.|
As for Philip, there is no doubt that he is naïve and prone to quick decisions. He ignores sound financial advice from his solicitor. He rejects all criticism and acts peevish when he doesn’t get his way. One explanation for his behavior may be his desire to replace Ambrose with Rachel, as if the thought of being alone is more than he can bear. He dismisses any romantic interest in Louisa, his pretty neighbor and long-time friend. It’s as if only Rachel can fill the lonely void left by Ambrose.
Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland excel at playing these complex characters. Daphne Du Maurier recommended Burton for the part. It’s not a subtle performance, perhaps because the stage-trained actor was still adjusting to the medium of film. However, his tendency to sometimes overplay works to his advantage, imbuing Philip with an almost manic personality. Burton earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
|Richard Burton at age 27.|
|Olivia de Havilland as Rachel.|
From a production standpoint, My Cousin Rachel looks impressive and believably recreates the Cornish coast (although some footage was shot in Cornwall). It’s no surprise that the film’s crew earned Oscar nominations for art direction, costume design, and cinematography (black & white).
Daphne Du Maurier’s novel was remade as a four-part British miniseries in 1983 with Geraldine Chaplin as Rachel and Christopher Guard as Philip. Alas, I’ve never seen it so I cannot make a comparison. It would have to be very good, though, to rank with the splendid 1952 version.
This review is part of the CMBA's Fabulous Films of the 1950s Blogathon. Click here to check out this wonderful blogathon's complete schedule.