Anyone who watches in amazement – or irritation – as murderers on television cop shows believably feign grief, surprise or disinterest when blithely lying about their crimes will appreciate “In Secret,” a dark, gloomy and faithful film of Emile Zola’s 1867 novel “Therese Raquin.” This is a crime about conscience, not mystery.
The first-time killers in this story are old-school sinners, consumed by their guilt in a classic lesson on “Be careful what you wish for.” The haunted lovers who bump off the man who stands in their way are played by Elizabeth Olsen, one of the hottest young actresses out there, and equally hot Oscar Isaac of “Inside Llewyn Davis” stardom. Their story may take place in 19th century Paris, but their passion is immediate and beyond reckless.
Add Jessica Lange as the wronged, surviving victim of their crime, and things get bizarrely delectable. Over her career, Lange has evolved from ingenue to leading lady to a modern-day version of Bette Davis’ “Baby Jane,” thanks to her place as top ghoul on “American Horror Story.” She is completely human here, but that doesn’t keep her character, Mme. Raquin, from being just a little bit of a monster.
Director Charlie Stratton plays out Zola’s morality tale in its original setting, the dark alleys and narrow streets of post-revolutionary Paris. (The filming actually was done in Budapest.) This is a city populated by shadows and secrets. To maintain the naturalism of the sparse story, Stratton keeps us much in the dark, having his characters live by lamplight and very little sun.
The story is simple. With her mother dead, young Therese is left to be raised by an aunt (Lange) in a house also shared by a sickly boy cousin, the wan Camille. As Cami, Tom Felton shakes off all traces of the crafty blond Draco Malfoy he brought to life in the “Harry Potter” films. Cami is a Mama’s boy whose health and upbringing have made him constitutionally unable to make any other woman happy. That includes Therese, as the two are pushed into a marriage by Mme. Raquin to keep them both under her control.
However, the madame doesn’t bargain for Laurent (Isaac), Cami’s childhood friend and a lusty would-be artist who quickly sizes up the malfunctioning household. Dark and handsome, he is everything Cami is not, and Therese – with no other outlet for her sexual urges – eagerly goes to him.
Like the book, “In Secret” is not chatty. Much of the subtext is left to the audience to perceive and deduce as the story follows its inevitable arc to tragedy. The mood changes not by words but with colors, as the roses fade from Therese’s cheeks and Laurent turns from a hearty hunk to a demented devil.
Along the way, Stratton does some things very well. The friends of the family who come by every Thursday to play dominoes provide a needed sense of the ridiculous, as they muddle in and out of the drama oblivious to what is really happening around them. And Olsen is strong as Therese, who can’t deny her desires at the same time she cannot live with them.
“In Secret” is not a great film, but it is a good film, keeping alive a strong and classic story of the wages of sin, repaid from the depths of self-inflicted depravity.
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Jessica Lange
Director: Charlie Stratton
Running time: 101 minutes
Rating: R for sexual content and brief violent images
The Lowdown: A sexually repressed young woman and her husband’s best friend embark on a tragic affair in 19th century Paris.