- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Director Roger Michell wanted to create a type of English countryside perhaps never before seen on film — what he called an “unspecified west country” along Britannia’s Atlantic coast.

“We started to assemble this fictional place made up of many, many different locations all over the south of England,” Mr. Michell told The Washington Times of the setting for his new film, “My Cousin Rachel.”

Accordingly, the seascape seen in the film entails shots of South Devon, with other landscapes in Oxfordshire and Surrey all contributing to the illusion that it was a solitary setting.

“My job and the production designer’s (Alice Normington) job was to knit all these together in a coherent way which led you to believe that the whole film was happening in one perfect location,” Mr. Michell said. “You can do these things now which, 20 years ago when I started making period films, you couldn’t.”

Based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier (“Rebecca,” “The Birds”), “My Cousin Rachel” — set in Cornwall in the novel — stars Sam Claflin as Philip, a young man whose guardian left England to travel to Italy in the 1830s. There he meets a woman named Rachel (Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz) whom he quickly marries. When his guardian dies under mysterious circumstances, thereby leaving the future of the family estate in question, Philip invites Rachel to England, where he at first intends revenge on the woman he believes responsible for his guardian’s death.

As so often happens in the stories of du Maurier, all is not as it seems, and things quickly become more complicated.

Mr. Michell said that both the source book and its author were rather little known in the culture at large, which he thought made it ripe for a new film adaptation.

“I thought this was going to be like a ‘50s chick lit kind of thing. I was instantly surprised that it wasn’t a bit like that,” Mr. Michell said of the novel. “It’s full of complexity and odd, dark, interesting stuff.”

Not the least of which is the hatred Philip at first feels transmuting into a perhaps immature sexual draw to Rachel. In the book, Philip is 25 and Rachel 35 — an age difference frowned upon greatly at the time, though not as much today. This is one reason Mr. Michell made the character in the film even older. (Miss Weisz is 47; Mr. Claflin 30.)

“There should be something transgressive about their sexual passion so that you feel like he [desires] his mother, basically,” Mr. Michell said of the forbidden nature of the film’s sexual element.

Mr. Michell knew that he wanted Miss Weisz to be his Rachel — though it was pure coincidence she happened to share the character’s first name.

“She’s really good at playing each moment truthfully. You never get a sense that she’s being manipulative or she’s playing a game,” Mr. Michell said of his leading lady’s interpretation of Rachel Ashley.

And because the character was supposed to be half-Italian, Mr. Michell believed Miss Weisz also had the right physical features and dark hair to match du Maurier’s physical descriptions.

“Because the character is half-Italian in the 1830s, she could be coming from Mars,” Mr. Michell said. “She’s coming form a different world, and she should feel as exotic as an iced espresso,” which was all but unknown in 19th century England.

Mr. Michell’s filmography, realized on both sides of the Atlantic, defies easy categorization. His 1999 British comedy “Notting Hill” with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant was followed immediately by the New York-set drama “Changing Lanes” with Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson. Other works include the Franklin Roosevelt drama “Hyde Park on Hudson,” with Bill Murray as FDR, and “La Week-End,” about an elderly British couple who returns to Paris decades after their honeymoon in a bid to put the spark back in their marriage.

“I don’t have a clear idea what compels me to go through the long, arduous, painful journey of actually making a film,” Mr. Michell said of his rather eclectic CV. “I wish I knew what that was.”

He described the work of making films as “being a privileged tourist.”

“You can enter into different worlds, ideas and different kinds of emotional neighborhoods,” Mr. Michell said of the profession of filmmaking, adding that two of the only commonalities he can point to in his work are a great deal of dialogue and stories that somehow revolve around marriage.

“You can’t go on holiday to the same place every year,” he said of finding new stories. “You don’t want to do the same thing twice.”

One thing Mr. Michell is doubtless anxious not to revisit would be the tormented process of the multiple endings he was forced to shoot for “Changing Lanes.” Originally the script by Chap Taylor ended with Messrs. Jackson and Affleck having a fistfight on a balcony, but test audiences gave that denouement a big thumbs down, leading to reshoots until the final result: Mr. Affleck’s lawyer character undergoes a moral 180 and agrees to work pro bono for Mr. Jackson’s luckless insurance salesman.

“I was disappointed,” Mr. Michell said, not hiding his frustration with the Hollywood process that altered the 2002 film, which he cheekily refers to now as “Changing Endings.”

“Although you eventually persuade yourself it’s a perfectly good ending, I was deeply, deeply pissed off when the film came out and reviewers said, ‘This is such a great film except the ending,’” Mr. Michell said. “I wish I’d been able to stand my ground.”

That may explain his seeming preference to continue making films in the U.K., where financial concerns often — though not always — take a backseat to artistic endeavor.

“Mostly I make smaller movies here where I can decide what the ending will be,” he said. “They’re mostly about characters interacting in complicated ways. That’s really what interests me about art in general, and about fiction.”

“My Cousin Rachel” opens in the District this weekend.

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