“In Secret” is a movie that gets significantly better as it moves along, making a rather unexpected recovery from a mundane first half that looks and feels like it was pulled straight from the pages of a Harlequin Romance novel.
Shifting from a sappy, almost unforgivably clichéd period piece into something that might resemble a mash-up of “War of the Roses”, an Edgar Allan Poe tale and one particularly well-known Shakespeare tragedy, writer/director Charlie Stratton’s feature debut, which is based on the 1867 book “Thérèse Raquin” by French author Émile Zola, becomes an interesting psychological thriller once the narrative makes its abrupt about-face. Where the film catches us a bit off-guard is not with some brilliant twist (the biggest plot points can be gathered from the trailer, and they’re rather obvious anyway), but with its palpable change in mood and atmosphere. The setting, which is 1860’s Paris most of the time, turns from drab to haunting, and some subtle, easy-to-miss dark humor suggests that the film might be more aware of itself than we initially thought.
To some audience members, this may not be a sufficient enough payoff for slogging through the first half-hour or so, in which beautiful young Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen, “Oldboy”) endures the reign of her domineering aunt (Jessica Lange) and a tepid arranged marriage to her sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton of the “Harry Potter” series). She begins an affair with Camille’s childhood friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”), a self-assured artist who immediately picks up on Thérèse’s sexual repression. This aspect of the film goes through the motions, so to speak, as it focuses on Olsen and Isaac’s unbridled passion for one another, and looks to be just another mediocre romantic melodrama (those who are going to see the film based on it being advertised as an “erotic” thriller will be able to skip the cold shower).
Very suddenly, though, we find ourselves watching a different kind of movie. It becomes clear that we aren’t supposed to be pulling for this secret romance, as their better sense succumbs to animalistic urge, and all bets are off. Staging a boat accident, Thérèse and Laurent do away with her husband in order to be together forever, and no sooner is the body discovered than the couple begin to develop an aversion to one another.
The talented cast provides some moments of brilliance, particularly between Olsen and Lange (the former continues to emerge as a versatile actress while the latter delivers yet another emotionally exhausting performance as a grief-stricken mother), though the film as a whole doesn’t live up to their standards. Olsen’s unraveling is quite a thing to watch (see also “Martha Marcy May Marlene”). Oscar Isaac achieves a delicate balance between love-struck and sinister (the polar opposite of last year’s Llewyn Davis), and in a scene or two shows that he has a knack for pitch black comedy, which one may only be able to discern by the expressions on his face.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about “In Secret” is how dramatically our sympathy oscillates between the characters. Ultimately, some clever writing, competent directing and efficient editing make this film a nice little surprise.
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Charlie Stratton, Elizabeth Olsen, Émile Zola, Exclusive Media Group, In Secret, Jessica Lange, LD Entertainment, Oscar Isaac, Pioneer Pictures, Roadside Attractions, Therese Racquin, Tom Felton, Wonderful Films, Work in Progress