This may seem like common sense, but it occasionally deserves a reminder: the nature of the performances in a film can change the entire fabric of the storytelling. Under better circumstances, My Cousin Rachel should play out as a clever glimpse into the machinations of a widow with unclear motivations, whose interactions with her deceased husband's family could lead her either toward malicious intents or toward her being misjudged by those around her. Conversely, the viewpoint of the young heir to this estate would benefit from more consistent skepticism, since the story's tone leans into that doubting atmosphere. This adaptation of a 1951 novel by Daphne du Maurier loses those intentions, though, despite the efforts of Oscar-recognized talents and a gloomy setting, where instead of indistinct motivations and shifting perceptions, the plot plays out more like a character examination of an easily-persuaded mark and hardships utterly of his making.
The owner of a substantial English estate, Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton) has taken his young cousin, Philip (Richard Burton), into his home after the death of his parents. They lived well over many years, creating a strong family bond between them, well into points when Ambrose starts having health issues. Yearning to avoid the harsh climate, he travels abroad to Italy without Philip -- now a man in his mid-20s -- where he finds himself stranded away from his estate due to a degradation in his illness. Confusion emerges when Philip receives odd letters from his cousin about the care he's receiving, to which Philip later discovers that he had died. During the process, however, Ambrose had found someone that he loves in Italy and decided to marry her, bringing the ownership of the estate into question. When Ambrose's wife, Rachel (Olivia de Havilland), arrives to the estate after a prolonged period of keeping her distance, Philip's skepticism about her motivations takes hold … but so does his sense of empathy, as well as his own fond feelings for the "middle-aged" woman.
My Cousin Rachel begins slowly and deliberately, illustrating what life's like at the Ashley estate before and during Ambrose's vacation abroad. There isn't much development to Philip's character, shifting gears from the curious boy of his youth to the older-than-he-looks chap embodied by Richard Burton, yielding someone whose traits are largely indistinguishable from other naïve, skeptical, semi-hotheaded men of privilege in their 20s. Burton's performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but the reasons for that struggle to be seen in his responsiveness to learning of Ambrose Ashley's death, which default to uninteresting histrionics that do little to enrich the mystery involved with the issues his cousin encountered overseas. His relationship with godfather and estate manager Nick Kendall becomes a more intriguing facet of this early period, mostly due to how Nick micromanages the young Ashley's impulses and imparts knowledge about his cousin's hereditary ailments.
Under the veil of Joseph LaShelle's beautiful shadowy and stone-textured cinematography, youthful rage and skepticism fuel the lead-up in My Cousin Rachel, to such a degree that one still yearns to know more about this mystery widow and how Philip will respond when he's eventually confronted by her. Alas, the moments when they finally meet also becomes the turning point into the film's complications, fueled by an unpersuasive mild-mannered performance from Olivia de Havilland, whose overly amicable, buttoned-up demeanor doesn't jibe with the vagueness of her character's interests. Here, these don't read like the mannerisms of somebody who could be a misunderstood widow caught in tricky circumstances, but like the façade that's projected when someone's trying to conceal their true intentions as they get in the good graces of others. When the circumstances are as suspect as they are involving Ambrose's death, this entity needs to be an influential dramatic force if ambiguity's the intention, and Olivia de Havilland's turn as Rachel lacks the swaying power to make that happen.
Therefore, when the puzzle pieces fall into place and the "twists" play out in My Cousin Rachel, the surprises aren't found in the revealed truths of characters' objectives, but in Philip's obliviousness as his headstrong distrust quickly morphs into generosity, affection … and ignorance. Dramatic lighting and musical cues attempt to punctuate moments of realization and frustration between the cousin and the widow, but the inherent trickiness involved with the push-and-pull of ownership over the estate undermines the film's crucial mysterious streak. The swiftness of how the powers of persuasion take hold in Henry Koster's execution undercut the story's gothic romantic suspense, worsening as the ramifications of those persuasions shape where the plot goes after that. Unlike how the harrowing psychological elements and quick relationship-building were so effortlessly applied to Daphne du Maurier's writing in Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Rebecca, Koster's handling of My Cousin Rachel lets those crucial transitions fall by the wayside, and it drags those desired ambiguities down with them.
Video and Audio:
My Cousin Rachel only infrequently leaves the walls of Ambrose Ashley's estate, journeying to Italy for a brief period and outdoors on the grounds for bursts here and there, so the capability of Twilight Time's disc to properly handle shadows and textures in the dim manor tends to be more necessary than desirable. Expectedly, the limited-edition boutique label once again does a classic film's cinematography right, presenting the 1.33:1-framed photography in a splendid 1080p AVC transfer. Shadows are complex, rich, and adaptive to fine elements in garments and skin surfaces throughout, while lighter elements of contrast and properly bright without blooming. Shade gradation during close-ups on people's skin stays exceptionally adaptable and natural within the black-and-white photography, while tight detail can be spotted in strands of hair and period garments, though the most impressive sharpness values will be spotted in the ornate textures of the manor's stony and wood-engraved halls. Sporting a delightful blanket of film grain, the award-winning cinematography looks stellar.
The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track coasts right alongside the transfer's impeccable quality, exhibiting brilliant clarity and evenness while consistently wearing its age on its sleeve. Dialogue possesses strength and high-end responsiveness, but doesn't lose sight of midrange naturality, opting for heft at the center of the track that could've ventured into some age distortion … but produces only marginal, delicate raspy points that are inherent with the track's age. The music responds accordingly, filling the mono channel while also maintaining enough control to avoid any issues. A few little sound effects creep out of the track, such as the tinkling of a tea cup and the chirping of a bird, which are appropriately clean and strong.
Under the "Set Up" wing of the Blu-ray, you'll find an Isolated Music Track for My Cousin Rachel, which accompanies the Theatrical Trailer (2:49, HD) as far as film-centered extras are concerned. Twilight Time have also included a Vintage My Cousin Rachel Radio Show (52:52) as well.
My Cousin Rachel is a moody, pleasantly melodramatic rendering of psychological suspense hinged on dubious romance and estate inheritance, adapting from Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same name. What's missing is the ambiguity desired by the gothic story, the questionable motivations of its central character and a genuine execution of her powers of persuasion. That's largely a reflection of overly demonstrative performances: too much fervency from Richard Burton to sell a young mark's shifts from skeptic to admirer, and not enough cunningness from Olivia de Havilland to suggest that her character might be more than the schemer she's immediately framed to be. As a result, critical developments in the plotting seems like sizable leaps in logic and inconsistencies in character choices instead of expected allowances of the storytelling, producing a period "thriller" that's to be enjoyed on a more straightforward level than it could've been. Twilight Time's Blu-ray will be a treat for enthusiasts and the curious, though, and comes with an isolated music score and radio broadcast of the story for extra goodies. Most curiosities toward this film should be satisfied with a Rental, though.