“My Cousin Rachel” is a well-turned, well-acted literary adaptation that suffers from a built-in problem: The hero is a twit.
True, a handsome twit and a sympathetic one for much of the running time, before audience impatience begins to wear thin. The movie is based on a 1951 novel by Daphne du Maurier, and in a lot of ways it’s a reprise of the author’s biggest hit, “Rebecca” (1938), with the genders reversed. Instead of a naive female first-person narrator, the tale is told by a naive young man, Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin, Finnick in the “Hunger Games” movies).
An orphan raised by a wealthy and much-loved cousin in 19th-century Cornwall, Philip becomes alarmed when that cousin, traveling in Italy for his health, sends word that he has met and married another distant cousin, Rachel. Soon thereafter, cousin Ambrose dies in murky enough circumstances that his heir is convinced he has been done wrong. Rachel must be the villain, or so Philip thinks until she appears at the estate, lovely, humble, and in the person of Rachel Weisz. Philip is smitten.
Weisz is a very good actress, but she can be a cold one — even her passions sometimes arrive feeling second-guessed. Initially, this makes her a natural for the role of cousin Rachel, a figure that hovers ambiguously between eras and genres. Is she a stone-hearted schemer, a film noir femme fatale decades ahead of schedule? Or is she a wronged heroine who has wandered in from the Bronte sisters’ moors?
The novel cleverly plays on that uncertainty and so does the movie — the trick is that we see and understand more than the unworldly young narrator but never quite enough to tip the scales one way or the other. Claflin’s performance can’t be faulted; he stays true to his character even as Philip’s actions become increasingly reckless and remarked upon by others in their small, socially constrained world.
The lovelorn sap, never sure who’s using whom, is a staple of novels and film; think of Jimmy Stewart wavering obsessively through Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” As in that movie, “My Cousin Rachel” gives the hero a perfectly proper love interest who’s ignored, the observant Louise (Holliday Grainger), daughter of Philip’s godfather Mr. Kendall (Iain Glen, Jorah Marmont on “Game of Thrones”). Grainger plays the part with a wise and patient glow; of course we prefer her to the distant Rachel, and so our exasperation with Philip grows.
Director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “Venus”) keeps it moving lavishly along and the movie’s never a chore to watch. But neither does it engage us the way this kind of story should, by pulling us into the hero’s mania and getting us to feel what he feels. The issue, again, may be Weisz, who can do calculation and ambiguity but who here rarely projects the vulnerability that makes her young cousin want to protect her (among other things). And because we don’t see it, we don’t see how he sees it.
So as the vice tightens in the final act and Philip throws all propriety to the wind — and then finds fresh new reasons to doubt Rachel — you may discover that your chief emotion is . . . annoyance. That’s not, I’m guessing, what the filmmakers intended. “My Cousin Rachel” is a movie where everything works except the hoped-for alchemy between two actors — and between an actor and her audience.
MY COUSIN RACHEL
Directed by Roger Michell. Written by Michell, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Starring Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Iain Glen. At Kendall Square. 106 minutes. PG-13 (some sexuality, brief strong language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.