Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:
My Cousin Rachel (2017) | Directed by Roger Michell
McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)
Thinking of adapting a novel to the screen? If so, don’t miss MY COUSIN RACHEL. This suspenseful summertime treat offers an excellent case study of a brilliantly told novel skillfully escorted from page to screen by writer/director Roger Michell.
We’ll look at three of its storytelling strategies—all originating in the novel, all needing special treatment on screen, and all interrelated: (1) the open ending, (2) first person point of view, and (3) the unreliable narrator.
1. THE OPEN ENDING:
To set up her novel, Daphne du Maurier invented a backstory in which the first two husbands of a captivating woman die in uncertain circumstances. Gossips spread rumors about murder, but the medical authorities ascribe both deaths to natural causes.
From that set-up, Du Maurier could have written a novel about Phillip, the prospective third husband of the widow Rachel, a man who senses he could become her third victim. The plot could have built to an either positive or negative climax in which Phillip discovers for certain that Rachel is innocent or for certain that she’s guilty, and acts accordingly one way or the other. Either ending would give the reader closure.
Instead, the novelist opted for ambiguity and an open ending. Du Maurier’s answer to “Did she or didn’t she?” is like staring at a gestalt:
Could be either but we’ll never know which.
To create her open ending, Du Maurier took a page from the playwright Luigi Pirandello. His plays dramatize the ways subjectivity warps the truth. He asks, “How can we ever know what factually happens in life when every human being sees things from a subjective, and therefore biased, point of view?” The Pirandello premise has inspired wonderful tellings such as Kurosawa’s film RASHOMON, Ian Pear’s novel The Instance of the Fingerpost, and Sarah Treem’s television series THE AFFAIR.
Now imagine Roger Michell’s task. How to write and direct the film so that some people come out convinced she did it, and others are just as certain she didn’t, but no one leaves confused. Solution: Write every line of dialogue, and then direct every scene so each word, look, and gesture creates a perfect double entendre—two opposite meanings that force the audience to choose. Next, sit back and let personal biases sway people the way they always do.
2. FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW:
The natural impulse of cinema is to leap through time and space, cutting from image to image. So, how to film a novel that’s persistently located in the protagonist’s mind and strictly limited to his subjective point of view?
One choice is to rewrite it into the objective third person point of view. Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, is narrated by a schizophrenic mental patient, Chief Bromden. As Chief tells us his tale, he hallucinates walls oozing slime and people growing and shrinking like Lewis Carroll creatures from beyond the looking glass. Instead, for the 1975 film, screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman stripped the novel down to its essential events, put Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) at the center of the action, and re-envisioned the story through the cool eye of an omniscient, free-moving camera.
For MY COUSIN RACHEL, however, Roger Michell realized that du Maurier’s ingenious ambiguity wouldn’t work unless the camera locked into Phillip’s (Sam Claflin) POV and stayed there. So Michell’s script and editing constantly call for angles that either look at Phillip while he reacts, gaze over Phillip’s shoulder while he acts, or survey scenic landscapes while he narrates VO.
3. THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR:
Experienced readers know that exposition told in a first person voice may or may not be factual. Of course, many first person narrators are perfectly honest and can be trusted. We, for example, take Ishmael’s descriptions of the characters and events in Moby Dick as statements of fact.
On the other hand, in works such as FIGHT CLUB and GONE GIRL the audience senses that a character’s version of events (no matter how vivid and impactful) cannot be trusted. Such characters then become the fictional device known as the unreliable narrator.
This strategy has many variations. In some tellings the narrator’s unreliability is hinted at, but not revealed until the very end when we discover the whole story was a calculated lie (THE USUAL SUSPECTS) or a massive rationalization (ATONEMENT). Other narrators may be unreliable for reasons of insanity (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) or post-traumatic delusions (LIFE OF PI, JACOB’S LADDER). One of the most common variants is a story told by a gullible youth or naïf (FORREST GUMP, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, HUCKLEBERRY FINN).
This last variation was Daphne du Maurier’s choice. She wrote My Cousin Rachel (1951) in the first person voice of her seriously naïve protagonist, Phillip Ashley. Letters from his guardian, Ambrose Ashley (who may be suffering from a brain tumor and therefore delusional), make him highly suspicious of Ashley’s widow. Nonetheless, he falls madly in love with her.
Throughout the novel Phillip seeks the truth by constantly studying body language and facial expressions with an eye to ulterior motives or duplicitous thoughts in the subtexts of other character’s words and gestures. His inner monologues are spotted with “maybe,” “perhaps,” “possibly,” “as if”; he wonders aloud if his imagination, his “fancy,” is deceiving him or are his suspicions true; then as he reads minds, he becomes more and more sure of his surmises.
While questioning Rachel’s Italian friend, Rainaldi, Phillip muses: “He took up a pen between his fingers, and tapped it on the table, as if he were playing for time or trying to distract me. Was it my fancy or did a veiled look come over his dark eyes?” In other words, was Rainaldi lying? Is he up to something? If so, what?
Later while talking to Rachel: “I knew from her voice that she was talking to convince herself, not me.” In other words, she’s lying to herself. But what lie and why?
As we read du Maurier’s first person novel, we know that the other characters could be innocent and that Phillip’s suspicions could well be a distorted male gaze, but because we’re fixed in the POV of an unreliable protagonist, we have to judge for ourselves who or what to believe.
That’s literature. Roger Michell’s problem is how to turn it into cinema, and he found the solution in his casting and directing of the actors.
As we watch Rachel Weisz’s subtle performance, we sense her flow of unspoken thoughts, but what are they? Rachel’s subtext alternates between seeming innocence and what could be either regret over not being able to save her two fatally ill husbands or guilt about poisoning them. It’s for us to decide.
The same is true for the writing that underlies Sam Claflin’s impressive performance. Phillip doesn’t know anything, so he suspects everything. His country-boy character arcs from innocent to lethal in a seamless portrayal of how naiveté leads to the paranoia that sends a woman to her death.
If you’re interested in adaptation, watch for novels coming to the screen, read the books first, sketch the way you would do it, then see the films. You’ll learn fast.