Take half the stately period drama (but none of the enjoyment) of “The Kings Speech,” a generous helping of the illicit affairs of “Fatal Attraction,” and a pinch of romance with “Twilight”-level depth, and condemn it all to the dreariest sound stage in England and you’ve arrived at “In Secret”: an ode to passionless filmmaking set in 1860’s Paris.
For one brief moment, Thérèse Raquin (Elizabeth Olsen) believed moving to Paris would be her one chance to escape the domestic imprisonment of her oppressive aunt’s (Jessica Lange) French countryside home. The hope of freedom is squashed, though, when Thérèse becomes victim of an arranged marriage to her frail, sickly cousin, Camille (Tom Felton). As the rest of an unwanted life is sprawling out in front of her, Thérèse becomes desperate for an escape. Enter Camille’s friend, Laurent (Oscar Isaac): a bold, masculine painter that has Thérèse doe-eyed in seconds. Taken by lust, the two engage in a wild, secret affair in which they fall in love over a week’s stolen meetings. Thérèse dreams of leaving her domineering family behind for good to marry Laurent, arriving at a simple solution: get rid of Camille, permanently.
The story, “Thérèse Raquin,” is a famous one written by Émile Zola in 1867 and frequently adapted to stage and screen ever since. This rendering is written and directed by Charlie Stratton, a first time feature filmmaker. Looking at things like the theatrical lighting that uses unnatural colors of aqua blue and bright orange, or the way that actors we know to be talented utterly fail, it seems “In Secret” was beyond the filmmakers’ means.
The first unaffecting act, in which Olsen performs more on-screen orgasms than appear in explicit erotic romances like “Blue is the Warmest Color,” is enough to flat line all interest in this seriously unsexy sexcapade. Things only get worse with the tacked-on conventions of the thriller genre when Thérèse and Laurent attempt to conceal their involvement in Camille’s tragic fate. Rather than at least reveling in the campy nature of the erotic thriller, “In Secret” feigns the motions of genuine period drama and romance but provides us with only frequent looks at teenaged horniness portrayed by ultra-thin, one-beat characters.
Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” films), who excels at playing insufferable little snots (that’s a compliment), is written with jester-like stupidity as Thérèse’s sweaty, bumbling cousin and husband. Paired with Lange’s aloof, over-protective mother character (Madame Raquin), and worst of all the endless bad-cringe interactions between Thérèse and Laurent, nothing but the absolute broadest strokes was used to sketch these characters. As is typical when you have a character representing one “type” each, unintentional comedy arises in the melodrama. To choose just one example, Laurent describes to Thérèse a time when he painted a nude, deaf female. Unable to speak to the woman, he had no choice but to, of course, part her legs with his paintbrush to adjust her pose. Thérèse is so overtaken with attraction to Laurent in this moment that she physically gasps at his every glance in her direction. If that gives you the willies just wait until the couple is almost caught in the act in Thérèse’s room and Laurent hides under her enormous skirt.
The whole thing is so reductive to Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Olsen’s (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) positions as talented up-and-coming actors. On what foundation sits their supposed love to which its participators are driven to thoughts of murder in order to protect? As far as we can tell – simple, dumb lust. The ultimate, tragic choices these two make feel in no way connected to any level of passion the screen manages to give off. I found my mind wandering instead in all sorts of directions: “Felton would be great in a comedy,” “Why hasn’t Oscar Isaac been cast as Victor Frankenstein yet?”
It’s a rare sight to experience this many moments of bewilderment as to how certain scenes and lines of dialogue made it all the way through scripting, shooting, and editing to be formally presented to us as a final product. Some enormous fan of the 1867 novel may get something out of this distasteful adaptation, but the rest of you can thank me for sitting through it so you don’t have to.
US Limited Release: February 21, 2014 | UK Wide Release: May 16, 2014
1 hr. 41 min.