If there’s anything actually wrong with actor-TV-director-turned-feature-filmmaker Charlie Stratton’s In Secret it’s that it’s too finely crafted and too faithful to its source novel. The film is based on Émile Zola’s novel, Thérèse Raquin (in fact, it played under the title, Thérèse, at film festivals). Whether you know the book or not, if you know Zola at all, you can be pretty sure this isn’t going to be a firkin of simians. No, this is very serious indeed, but it’s a special kind of serious in that it’s naturalist in intent and therefore pretty detached in tone. You aren’t invited to feel very much for these characters. Instead, you’re meant to observe them, their situations and the psychological effects of their actions more or less without comment.
The story is a tragedy from every possible angle, but the approach is distanced. The result is a dark (literally as well as figuratively), brooding film that’s beautiful, but is somehow dead to the touch. That’s not a criticism — this seems to be the intent. Despite excursions into nightmare imagery, In Secret feels more like a downbeat academic exercise than a drama. Oh, it’s a very good exercise. I recommend the film — so long as you realize that it’s about as far from cheerful as you’re likely to get, and emotional involvement may be hard to find.
The film is extremely faithful to Zola’s story. With her mother dead, young Thérèse Raquin (played as a child by Lily Laight) is taken by her army officer father (Matt Devere) to live with her aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), and her son, Camille (played as a child by Dimitrije Bogdanov). The two children grow to adulthood (and become Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Felton) and are pushed into marriage by Madame Raquin, whose constant coddling of her sickly son has made him less-than-desirable marriage material — especially since we’ve seen that Thérèse has fantasies of someone more physically and emotionally imposing. But Thérèse is really left no choice in this matter, nor in the family’s decision to move to Paris, where Camille can secure employment while Thérèse and Madame Raquin set up a shop.
It is in Paris that Camille meets and brings home an old friend, Laurent LeClaire (Oscar Issac, Inside Llewyn Davis), a womanizing artist who has ended up working for the same company as Camille. Thérèse detests Laurent at first sight — primarily because he’s everything she wants in a man. Naturally, an affair ensues, and it isn’t long before a plan emerges to dispose of Camille. What happens after that … well, let’s just say it doesn’t end well. What may surprise you are the lengths the story goes to get to that ending, but those details I will leave to the film.
As I said at the onset, all this is beautifully crafted and executed with a very dark palette (even scenes in broad daylight seem subdued, and there aren’t many of them). The atmosphere is almost suffocating, making the events easy to understand. Charlie Stratton exerts magnificent control of the proceedings, and he creates what could have been one of the truly great, chillingly devastating final shots — if he hadn’t succumbed to the temptation to tack on one shot too many. The performances are beyond reproach (though it takes a while for Olsen to get her footing), and Jessica Lange is brilliant as Madame Raquin. Tom Felton has come a long way from his days as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. Fresh from Inside Llewyn Davis, Oscar Isaac creates another — very different — self-absorbed character. It’s all hard to fault, yet it’s also hard to fully embrace. Rated R for sexual content and brief violent images.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas.