In Secret (United States, 2013)

February 20, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
In Secret Poster

In Secret, an adaptation of Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin, is an effective period piece thriller that incorporates love, lust, desperation, and madness into a stew thickened by a gothic atmosphere. The film’s shortcomings - the most notable of which is a tendency to rush - are easily outweighed by its strengths. In Secret boasts strong lead performances and captures Zola’s dark, tragic sense of irony. This ancient proverb comes to mind: “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.”

Elizabeth Olsen, one of today’s crop of superlative blooming actresses, immerses herself in the role of Therese, a girl who comes to live with her aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), at a young age. She is forced to share a bed with her sickly cousin, Camille (Tom Felton). When she reaches age 21, Madame Raquin decrees that Therese will marry Camille. She has little say in the matter but goes along with it because there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. The trio moves to Paris so Camille can pursue a job opportunity. One day, he brings home a co-worker, Laurent (Oscar Isaac), to meet his family. The bored Therese is easy prey for Laurent’s seductive manner and the two are soon embroiled in a torrid affair. After spending weeks sneaking around, however, they ask the inevitable question: How much easier would things become if Camille suffered an “accident?”

In Secret is a “wages of sin” movie: when the characters attain their hearts’ desires via illicit means, everything turns to dust and ashes. To that extent, it’s as moral a tale as one is likely to find in the cinema today. Actions, especially those that are reprehensible, have consequences. No one is immune and, although director Charlie Stratton goes to great lengths to humanize all the characters and avoid there being a traditional “villain,” the men and women in this film suffer the fates of their counterparts in Zola’s novel. The broad strokes of the book’s narrative are retained.

In Secret contains moment of tension, sentimentality, eroticism, and humor. The sex scenes in general aren’t interesting - the camera work and editing make it impossible to see much. But there are quieter, less physically revealing sequences that stir the libido. The movie is infused with a dark sense of humor - consider, for example, a scene in which Laurent hides from Madame Raquin by crouching under Therese’s voluminous skirts. (As for what he does while under there... look for the trickle of sweat on Therese’s face.) Perhaps the most suspenseful and memorable moment occurs just before Therese, Laurent, and Camille board a boat. She stands on the outside as if paralyzed. The camera focuses on her face and, from the way Olsen plays the scene, Therese’s dread becomes palpable. She knows what will happen if she boards. We know what will happen if she boards. For the briefest of moments, taking that step becomes the hardest thing she has ever done - and one that will destroy the rest of her life.

Elizabeth Olsen, whose resume continues to blossom with unconventional choices and impressive performances, gives a resonant, three-dimensional portrayal of the tortured Therese. Oscar Isaac, who recently starred in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, is less deeply layered. Tom Felton is unrecognizable as the boy who played Draco Malfoy in eight Harry Potter movies. Jessica Lange is a little over-the-top but this is the kind of role that forgives a little scenery chewing. Her presence recalls that she once starred in The Postman Always Rings Twice, another movie about the bleak consequences of infidelity.

This is an atmospheric endeavor with most of the scenes transpiring in dimly-lit interiors. Those that occur out of doors often happen on gloomy days. Victorian-era Paris has never looked less lovely. One imagines The City of Lights not as a place of magic and romance, as it is often portrayed on the big screen, but of dirt and grime. In Secret is about the darker aspects of the human psyche and what can happen when those impulses are acted upon. This isn’t the first time a filmmaker has adapted Therese Raquin but it represents one of the most interesting and compelling interpretations.

In Secret (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2014-07-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1