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Bold acting cannot save 'In Secret's' blah script

POSTED: February 20, 2014 1:00 a.m.

“In Secret” might have been a much better film had the filmmakers acted as boldly as the characters.

Based on Emile Zola’s 1867 novel “Thérèse Raquin” and the play of the same name, “In Secret” tells the sordid tale of Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen), whose father forces her to live with her aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), and her cousin, Camille (Tom Felton), after her mother dies. Thérèse essentially becomes nurse and maid to the ever sickly Camille. When they are of age, Madame forces Thérèse to marry Camille.

The unhappy little family moves to Paris, where Camille finds work in an office, Madame opens a textile shop and Thérèse remains stuck in a sexually repressed domestic prison.

Then Camille reconnects with a childhood friend, Laurent (Oscar Isaac), a sometime painter and bon vivant. Laurent releases Thérèse’s pent up passions, and soon they decide to kill Camille so they can be together.

The plan actually works, but Thérèse and Laurent are haunted by guilt and mistrust of each other. Then things head toward an inevitably tragic conclusion.

There is something arbitrary and somewhat laughable about seeing American actors affect British accents to play French characters. Otherwise, “In Secret” is a capably made movie retaining much of the story in Zola’s naturalistic novel but makes little impact. And much of Zola’s story is about imprisonment, but the film doesn’t explore this theme very deeply.

One reason it falls flat is the omission of key elements of the backstory.

Zola’s Thérèse was the daughter of an Algerian mother. The ethnicity of her mother is never mentioned directly in the film, although we know she lived in Africa prior to moving in with the Raquins. The film never hints her mother might have been African, and Olsen doesn’t look like the child of an Algerian mother.

Small changes like this might seem minor, but they are the very things that make Zola’s novel worthwhile.

The adulterous murder plot was daring in the mid-19th century, but it’s paltry by our standards. Remove the novel’s subtext, which is created through details like Thérèse’s ethnicity, and you get this film: a superficial bodice ripper that doesn’t rip nearly enough bodices.

The filmmakers don’t update the representations of the love affair and shy away from its steamier moments. I will rarely write such a thing, but this story cries out for racier treatment. I’m not sure how this even earned its R-rating.

It doesn’t do enough to raise the viewer’s body temperature, nor does it provide the trademark image of intimacy that every successful screen romance requires. Think of the pottery scene in “Ghost” or the kissing in the rain scene in “The Notebook.”

Even though we are privy to Thérèse and Laurent’s “torrid” affair, it never actually earns the adjective “torrid.”

The kindest way to regard “In Secret” is as a film noir period piece. The adultery, the murder of the husband, the lovers haunted by the killing then turning on each other, and the pervasive nihilism all fit the defining traits of the film noir genre; it just happens to be set in mid-19th century France.

It works fairly well as noir, but not as anything else. It certainly doesn’t work as naturalism.

Literary naturalism isn’t known for setting a quick pace. The narrators provide copious details to place the story in a particular social context and play on the reader’s senses. The filmmakers adopt a naturalistic pace at exactly the wrong time. The story slows to escargot pace after Camille’s murder, just when the tempo and tension should escalate.

The cinematography is about the only thing consistently holding our attention. The filmmakers drew inspiration from painter Johannes Vermeer and other Dutch masters, using natural light and inspired compositions to give certain shots a painterly aesthetic. It is a visually lovely film.

“In Secret” is, unfortunately, a typical release for this time of year. Given the cast and lush production values, the studio obviously hoped it would garner prestige, but instead it arrives flaccidly in February.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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