The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “My Cousin Rachel,” click here.
“My Cousin Rachel” is a moody, sometimes soapy melodrama that’s a lot of fun to watch. Unless you’re someone who believes in the “friend zone.” Then it probably hits a little too close to home.
In “Rachel,” the title character (played by handy name-match Rachel Weisz) meets relative-by-marriage Philip (Sam Claflin) after her husband — Philip’s older cousin and guardian — dies in Italy. After finding a letter that suggests the death wasn’t exactly natural, Philip starts to suspect that Rachel had a hand in it. She goes to her late husband’s house in England — the house that Philip will inherit, as it seems his guardian never changed his will to include his wife.
The twists and turns that follow will be unfamiliar to most, except for those who live in novels where candles sputter in a romantically sinister manner and the wind eternally howls across the moor (like the Daphne du Maurier book on which the film is based). What will look familiar to many, though, is how Philip feels Rachel owes him something.
Upon Rachel’s arrival, Philip has a nice dinner prepared for her, but he gets frustrated when she elects to stay in her room. Is she being rude? Sure, you could argue that. You could also argue that she’s a recent widow who just traveled from Italy to England, so maybe she’s a little tired and not in the mood to play the charming houseguest. Philip, however, is angry. He was being a nice guy! Why doesn’t she respond the way he expects her to?
This pattern continues as Philip grows more and more romantically obsessed with Rachel. He gives her presents. He takes her on nice picnics. And at every turn she doesn’t respond in the “right” way (meaning romantically or sexually), and at every turn he gets more and more frustrated with her.
This is the “friend zone.” I will bet you everything I have in my pocket — 17 cents, a Burt’s Bees lip balm and a Jolly Rancher wrapper — that there are people reading this who are thinking that Rachel is leading Philip on just by going on a picnic with him. Here’s the thing: A woman might want to go on a picnic yet not have sex with whoever brought the basket.
Philip and all the men who believe they’ve been consigned to the mythical friend zone think relationships between men and women are like arcade claw machines: Put in enough time or money, and love or sex should and will result. Healthy relationships, and friendships in particular, are not transactional, though — they’re reciprocal. In a friendship, you go on a picnic with someone because you like that person’s company. You buy them a present because it’s their birthday, or you saw something they’d like. The relationship is the reward, not the path to something “better.”
Philip doesn’t get that. He assumes the relationship he wants is available for the right price. Rachel — somewhat naively — believes her companionship is reward enough. And, in the end, any attempt to buy something that isn’t for sale turns out to be a bad deal for everyone.
More Reelist columns from Kristen Page-Kirby: