When the film was first shown on festival screens last year it was called Thérèse, a shortened version of Thérèse Raquin, the original title of the scandalous 19th century serialized novel of adultery, murder and intrigue. After only a lukewarm reception, the film has now re-emerged, ready for a general release under the more modern sounding title, In Secret. Literary students have to wonder what celebrated French author Emile Zola would have thought.
You also have to wonder what he would have thought had he seen this new version of his controversial work. The arc of the story is the same, and so are the characters, but the whole affair feels stripped of its richly layered textures that made reading the novel so exciting. Considering that over the years there have been many adaptations on both the small and the big screens of Zola’s story, you would have hoped that a new, fresh approach might have delivered something original or creatively unexpected. Sadly, it doesn’t.
“Her mother is dead,” states young Thérèse’s father as he abandons his child to Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange). “You’re her aunt. I don’t know what to do with her.” And in a blink of an eye, before the opening credits are even completed, the little girl is already a woman (Elizabeth Olsen) and living under the care of her overbearing though presumably well-intentioned aunt.
At a table conversation where Aunt Raquin discusses her future plans of buying a fabric shop and moving to Paris with her son Camille (Tom Felton, better known as Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy) the woman casually remarks that Thérèse will, of course, marry. “Who am I going to marry?” asks Thérèse, surprised that such a thought would even be discussed. “Why, Camille, of course,” replies the aunt. And with that, Thérèse Raquin finds herself forced into a passionless marriage with her sickly, and somewhat naïve and inexperienced cousin.
When the three finally move to the capital, Thérèse peers out of the window of her new residence overlooking the grimy streets of Paris, the same look you might expect of a Dickensian view of London. The impression is of a woman trapped behind bars, and for the first time you get a real sense of what life feels like to Thérèse; imprisoned in a loveless marriage with a clueless husband living under the inescapable, suffocating wing of a domineering aunt.
It’s only later when her husband brings another party into Thérèse’s life, a friend called Laurent (Oscar Isaac) that everything changes. Within seconds of being alone in a room together, the sexually repressed Thérèse abandons all of her forced respectability and with a look of longing, a heaving bosom and some ripping of bodices, the woman engages upon an illicit love affair with her husband’s best friend, an affair of obsessive, forbidden love that will eventually lead to murder and finally tragedy.
The problem with In Secret is that it never engages. It’s dark and intentionally slow, brooding manner tends to dull the senses to the point where you’re forever in danger of losing interest. It’s like a reading a book where you reach the bottom of the page and you realize that even though your eyes wondered over the words, your mind had drifted elsewhere. Watching In Secret has the same effect.
However, the film’s one saving grace is the cast. Jessica Lange is quite perfect as Aunt Raquin, a finely nuanced performance that deserves to be in a better adaptation, plus it’s good to see Tom Felton develop further as an actor, fresh from his childhood Harry Potter days. And after witnessing Oscar Isaac embody the self-absorbed character of Llewyn Davis so thoroughly in the recent Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s good to see the actor portray a character so radically different yet be so equally effective and convincing as he is here. But it’s the always watchable Elizabeth Olsen as the oppressed Thérèse who, against all odds, somehow manages to compel the film forward. If your mind wanders it will always be Olsen that brings you back, keeping you temporarily alert, whether it’s done with a simple, longing glance or a pout of her lips as a sudden moment of lust or a sexual fantasy stirs within her.
But good performances alone can’t help a dull film. Like Thérèse’s arranged marriage to her cousin, In Secret is a passionless affair that ultimately fails to either connect or involve; it leaves almost no impression once the tragic account concludes.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 119 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)
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David Appleford is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society and the American Theatre Critics Association
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