Think of Therese Raquin, the Emile Zola novel that is the inspiration for In Secret, as the original film noir. It has an illicit love affair, a murder and the guilt and fear of discovery that comes with it.
Filmmaker Charlie Stratton, working from Neal Bell’s stage adaptation of the book, delivers a moody, melodramatic and somewhat overwrought version of the tale, sort of a 19th century-Paris Postman Always Rings Twice. It benefits from brooding performances by the leads and another fierce turn by Jessica Lange in an unpleasant supporting role.
Elizabeth Olsen is Therese Raquin, a tragically illegitimate child whose father leaves her with distant relatives after her mother dies.
“Illegitimates have been dealt an unlucky hand,” Madame Raquin (Lange) purrs. She then sets out to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Therese is forlorn and unloved in the present, and Madame has her future planned in ways that won’t change that. She will marry Madame’s pampered son Camille (Tom Felton), a sickly lad who has grown up with Therese, more of a coughing brother than a potential lover.
They move from the country to Paris, and that’s where Camille re-connects with childhood pal Laurent (Oscar Isaac of Inside Llewyn Davis), a smoldering rake of an artist who awakens the woman in Therese.
“Save me,” she pleads to him. And he does. Often.
As the clueless Camille frets that “I don’t know how to make Therese happy” to his “friend,” Laurent is making her happy every day over lunch.
And as the lovers get comfortable keeping their secret, even in the weekly dominoes parties that Madame throws with family and friends, the idea comes to them that Camille is just in the way. They should kill him. Perhaps they get the idea from the police inspector (the amusing Matt Lucas of TV’s Little Britain).
“There is nothing but murder and lust,” Inspector Olivier opines after relating the details of yet another grisly murder investigation in the 1860s City of Light.
“People have accidents every day,” the lovers realize.
In Secret is a genuine “bodice ripper” of a thriller, with the requisite heavy breathing that comes after said bodice is ripped. The sex isn’t explicit, but Olsen and Isaac suggest the heat that gives this doomed affair its momentum. Olsen’s version of Therese is a lovelorn Madame Bovary who decides to take things further than Flaubert’s Emma Bovary ever would.
Lange makes a delicious, fearsome hysteric, and former Harry Potter foil Felton is properly foppish and tubercular as Camille. And Stratton, who directed a stage production of this earlier, does well with shifting our sympathies from Therese to Camille to Madame Raquin over the course of the tale.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to back-date this original noir to keep us from seeing where it’s going long before it gets there. We’ve seen too many variations of this story. The overwrought 19th century melodramatic conventions of the plot creak like the springs and joints of a worn-out stagecoach.
And as what happened In Secret unravels in the harsh light of day, some of what we’re supposed to feel when the curtain falls is missing because we saw it coming long before it gets there.
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Jessica Lange, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton, Matt Lucas.
Writer-director: Charlie Stratton. Based on the Neal Bell play and the novel by Emile Zola
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 101 minutes. Sexual situations, brief violence. Opens Friday Feb. 21 at area theaters.