In Secret was originally called Thérèse, but the movie changed its title after Toronto, presumably to avoid confusion with the late Claude Miller’s recent, unrelated Thérèse, which was originally called Thérèse Desqueyroux. Got all that? It may also be that the film, the first feature from stage- and TV-trained actor-director Charlie Stratton, already had a knotty enough lineage: Based on Émile Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, In Secret comes to the screen via a stage version by Neal Bell. In some ways, though, the DNA of Zola’s story shares much in common with film noir. If it weren’t for the costumes, the basic plot could be mistaken for a 19th-century version of The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity.
No origins, however vaunted, can compensate for the complete absence of a pulse, and In Secret is a surprisingly dull adultery drama that covers standard ground (loveless marriage; repression; transgression and guilt) without much flair or insight. Even Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac—performers who until now seemed to be on a hot streak—can’t do much with the stodgy presentation. When the subject is passion that spills over into murder, a lack of passion is fatal.
The (former) title character grows up without parents. As the film opens, her father, stationed in Africa, entrusts her to a relative (Jessica Lange) in the French countryside. “Her mother is dead. You’re her aunt. I don’t know what to do with her,” he says, in a representative sample of the movie’s relentlessly expository dialogue. Raised by Lange’s Madame Raquin alongside a cousin (Tom Felton) who has chronic health problems, Thérèse (Olsen) winds up betrothed to this relative after being told her heritage makes her unmarriageable to anyone else. Mom and the less-than-blissful couple relocate to Paris, where they encounter an old family friend, sybaritic painter Laurent (Isaac). No sooner is Laurent composing a grotesque portrait of the husband than he and Thérèse are sneaking off for afternoon trysts. She fakes migraines to get away, catching the attention of her aunt. “You’ve had so many headaches lately, perhaps we should take you to the doctor,” she observes. The oblivious husband doesn’t garner much sympathy (at one point, he refers to his wife as a “portable pillow”), so it’s not hard to root for his comeuppance. It’s very easy to root just for something unexpected to happen.
Period pieces are so common that they really depend on style to set them apart. Sometimes it’s a matter of poetic or chronological flourishes (see Terence Davies’ adaptations of Edith Wharton and Terence Rattigan); sometimes a more radical approach is necessary (check out the mysterious, anachronism-heavy House Of Pleasures, set in Paris 30 years after In Secret). While not exactly theatrical, In Secret rarely gives life to the sights, sounds, and odors of the 1860s French metropolis. Lange runs through her repertoire of stern looks; Isaac and Olsen mostly just seem out of place. The movie even hews to the ridiculous convention of American actors adopting British accents to play French characters. Oooh-la-zzzzzz.