Tales of forbidden romance have been portrayed through the art of cinema for decades, but rarely has one been more unpleasant to sit through than "In Secret," a dreary adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1876 novel "Thérèse Raquin."
Set largely in Paris during the 1860s, the film stars Elisabeth Olsen as Thérèse, a deeply suppressed young woman who’s been under the care of her overbearing aunt, Madame Raquin (played by Jessica Lange) ever since the death of her mother when she was a child. When Madame Raquin informs Thérèse that she is to marry to her cousin, the Madame’s only son Camille (a persistently sweaty Tom Felton), Thérèse becomes confined within a marriage devoid of any real sense of passion or intimacy. However, one day when Camille introduces Thérèse to his friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac), the two of them begin a sensually charged affair that leads to terrible consequences.
A majority of films that center on star-crossed lovers often end in tragedy, but in order to get an emotional reaction from the audience, they need to be convinced of their feverish desire for one another. If the relationship feels contrived, as it does here, there are no stakes for the viewer to get involved in. All that’s left for people to experience is one monotonous scene after another of characters brooding, crying or screaming at one another. While the film attempts to build a convincing portrayal of Thérèse falling under Laurent’s seductive spell, it’s far more prioritized with developing the anguish and pain that arises as a result of their actions, exposing a complete lack of heart at the core of the picture.
"In Secret" is the motion-picture debut of Charlie Stratton, who has previously directed episodes of "Everwood" and "Faux Baby." While the film sustains its moody tone throughout, it has a drab, ugly visual style. The color palette that he provides for his representation of 19th Century Paris is dark, murky, and rather flat, making the film quite unpleasant to look at. It’s clear that Stratton didn’t want to romanticize Paris as "the city of love" in order to provide the film with a gloomy sense of atmosphere, but he fails to give it any sense of intriguing gothic appeal.
In addition, Stratton shoots several scenes in a workman-like manner, relying all too heavily on medium-shots and close-ups. He also films his actors in very unflattering angles, which can be used to effect in order to make the audience feel tense and claustrophobic, but the lack of fluidity between each cut makes the film seem both sloppily constructed and lazy. It’s a static approach to the material that lacks as much spark as the romance between Thérèse and Laurent that unfolds on-screen.
That being said, the extremely talented cast cannot be faulted for their work here. Their performances actually elevate Strattion’s dry, cliché-ridden screenplay and are able to breathe some life into their thinly developed characters. In particular, Elisabeth Olsen, who delivered a brilliant performance in "Martha Marcy May Marlene," is able to convey the subtlest emotions merely with a flicker of her eyes, and Jessica Lange is able to salvage a few moments of emotional poignancy as her domineering aunt. As for the men, Tom Felton does a solid job as Thérèse’s greasy-haired husband/cousin, but he’s playing such a one-note character that there’s only so much he can do to make Camille an intriguing or empathetic presence.
Oscar Isaac, who gave such a terrific performance in "Inside Llewyn Davis," is stuck playing Laurent as someone who’s consistently manipulated by the script in order to keep the story moving forward, making him feel all too much like an artificial plot device as opposed to the male embodiment of a "femme fatale" as the character that the film attempts to paint him.
At times, "In Secret" is so melodramatic that feels as if it’s about to fly off of the rails and veer straight into pure camp, especially as it nears its conclusion, but sadly, it never rises above being a depressing dirge of a film. If Stratton embraced Zola’s story in a more daring, wildly over-the-top approach, at least it could have been a hoot as a cinematic misfire. Unfortunately, it’s an entirely different kind failure: One that takes itself far too seriously, and believes that empathy can be earned simply by wallowing in the misery of its static characters, lacking any genuine sense of emotional depth.