My Cousin Rachel offers realism in 19th century thriller

Director Roger Michell is behind My Cousin Rachel, which stars Sam Claflin (above) as wealthy landowner Philip.
Director Roger Michell is behind My Cousin Rachel, which stars Sam Claflin (above) as wealthy landowner Philip.PHOTO: 20TH CENTURY FOX
Director Roger Michell (above) is behind My Cousin Rachel, which stars Sam Claflin as wealthy landowner Philip.
Director Roger Michell (above) is behind My Cousin Rachel, which stars Sam Claflin as wealthy landowner Philip.

Think "19th century" and "thriller" and it is easy to imagine the usual way these films are presented: with murky images, formal yet menacing speech patterns and terrifying dream sequences.

In other words, the "gothic" style.

British director Roger Michell, 61, sounds irritated when he is asked why My Cousin Rachel has none of those qualities.

"I wanted to keep it real, to have a real relationship, a real marriage," he tells The Straits Times on the telephone from London.

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In the film, based on the 1951 Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, wealthy landowner Philip (Sam Claflin) seeks vengeance against Rachel (Rachel Weisz), the woman who marries his beloved guardian Ambrose just before his death, which Philip suspects she caused. It opens in cinemas here tomorrow.

The current vogue for bodice- ripping psychodrama, seen in period films thick with eroticism and hallucinations, is not for Michell.

"I wanted the psychological realism to be at the forefront. I never understood the word 'gothic'. I really don't. They use the word in relation to Daphne du Maurier. Does it mean foggy? Does it mean mediaeval architecture?" he says.

Instead, the director of Notting Hill (1999) and Hyde Park On Hudson (2012) made the storytelling as clear and accessible as he could.

"As the mystery deepens and becomes more alarming and profound, the setting becomes cleaner, brighter and clearer," he says.

And getting that realism involved sending Claflin to a farm to learn how to be a proper rural landlord, performing tasks such as sheepherding and tree-cutting.

Claflin tells The Straits Times, also on the telephone from London, that he was sent to a historical farm near Brighton on the south coast of England. There, he learnt the skills that a pre-Industrial Age farmer might have. This included cutting grass with a scythe, a long blade swung gracefully around one's ankles, a job which if not done well might result in injury.

"I don't think I ever nailed it. It's a lot harder than it looks," says Claflin, 30, who starred in the romantic drama Me Before You (2016) and is no stranger to action, having also appeared in The Hunger Games science-fiction series (2012-2015).

"Scything is all about using your legs and hips as much as the arms. It's a really tough thing to do and I admire anyone who can do it," he says.

In the film, Rachel's independence and lack of caring about what polite society thinks of her causes Philip, who has grown up without the company of women, to become increasingly agitated.

"He's understandably very naive about how the other half lives. He had grown up without a mother, without the feminine touch. In a way, he is an adult dealing with teenage emotions," Claflin says.

Helping him get into the character of a rugged man of the soil who finds women baffling was his wardrobe, consisting of layers of rough, scratchy woollens.

"I'm lucky. Rachel (Weisz, as the widow) had to wear tight black dresses. I had baggy labourer's clothes. They help you step into the character and, by the end of filming, they are an extension of you."

•My Cousin Rachel opens in cinemas tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2017, with the headline 'Dose of realism in period thriller'. Print Edition | Subscribe