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‘In Secret’ a dour, lifeless period piece stranding an overly talented quartet of performers

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In Secret

Written and directed by Charlie Stratton

USA, 2013

What occurs in the new film In Secret feels less like a natural progression of logical events, instead of something more pre-ordained and unnecessarily fatalistic. The characters existing inside of this turgid tragedy do not act freely, but as if guided by an invisible puppet master. Even though the film is the latest adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin, it’s not that the story here unfolds dully because the basic plot points have been echoed many times in the past. Instead, it’s that there’s a deficiency of life amidst the gloom, even in the first half, which is presumably defined by its leading characters’ intertwining passion.

Elizabeth Olsen plays Thérèse Raquin, who’s first seen as a little girl being brought to her aunt (Jessica Lange) while her father works in Africa. Hope that he’ll return eventually fades into a distant memory, as her aunt essentially employs the girl as the caretaker of her own son, Camille (Tom Felton), who’s always been consumed by sickness, from childhood onwards. Eventually, Camille decides to move the family to Paris where he can begin his career; once there, his boyhood friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac) appears, making eyes at the repressed and sexually curious Thérèse. Making eyes quickly turns to making love, and when it’s clear that these two lovers won’t truly be happy until Camille is out of the picture, their thoughts and deeds turn much darker.

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Anyone familiar with Zola’s work, which has gone as far as inspiring the recent vampire film Thirst by Park Chan-wook, will be pleased to know that the broad strokes of the story are all present, all the way to the bleak finale. The problem, then, isn’t that writer/director Charlie Stratton has deviated wildly from the source material, but that his adaptation is devoid of any serious emotion. In a few sections, for a brief moment or two, we see how Laurent and Thérèse may complement each other, at least in the bedroom. But otherwise, even with actors as otherwise charismatic as Olsen and Isaac, the connection these two share is more frequently discussed than visualized. What’s more, at least in this presentation, it’s difficult to not feel as though this cipher-like couple is being given undue punishment. Especially in the first half, Madame Raquin and her son Camille hover between being well-meaning but unaware, and simply being obnoxious. We may not entirely wish for Laurent and Thérèse to find a happy ending, should it mean a nasty one for Madame Raquin and Camille, but neither is it easy to understand why they deserve to live such depressing, unfulfilling lives.

Moving past the always-humorous aspect of the performances (all of these characters are French, and the actors either speak in their natural English accents or, among the American actors, they try to sound appropriately British), there are only a few flashes of personality throughout. Felton, perhaps because he’s best known as the odious Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, is best suited to his character; Camille is not intensely nasty and selfish, but he’s blasé and blissfully self-centered. Felton’s natural insouciance fits the character best. Lange is asked to be as histrionic as possible, especially in the middle portion when personal tragedy strikes, and meets the task sufficiently. Olsen and Isaac, sadly, have both been far better in roles with more dimension and layers; Isaac, fresh off his brilliant work in Inside Llewyn Davis, looks the part of the artistic and alluring Laurent, but is given such thin material that he can barely rise above it. The same applies to Olsen, whose mounting desperation is adequate but never as remarkable as her work in such films as Martha Marcy May Marlene.

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In Secret is a dour and lifeless period piece, a commentary on how sad it was for people to have so little choice or agency in their personal and love lives, at least in the 19th century. Its main quartet of performers have put their talents to far better use in past projects; here, they’re guided along a descent into personal hell by a script that follows its source so stringently that it offers no fair substitute to simply reading Zola’s novel. Charlie Stratton, in his opening and closing visuals, hints at the clichéd concept that, below the surface, we hide all sorts of frightening and disturbing personal demons from our past. There really isn’t much more to In Secret than such surface-level insights; that this film strands a decent cast amongst those insights is the real shame.

— Josh Spiegel


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