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In Secret
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Raquin In The Free World"
2 stars

For a film adaptation of a classic novel to really work as a movie, it needs to have a point or purpose to it--you have to get the sense that the filmmakers are bringing it to the screen because there is something about it that really touches them on some fundamental level that they are compelled to share with audiences and not just because it has a recognizable title. If that sense of dramatic immediacy is not there, then all you really have is a very expensive book report that offers up the basic narrative bones and little else. For example, when Roman Polanski announced his plans to bring Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Ubervilles" to the screen, it seemed like an odd move to most observers but the resulting film, "Tess" (which makes its Blu-ray debut next week) turned out to be one of the very best films of its type precisely because he made it live and breathe in a way that made it seem fresh and immediate instead of just another costume piece. The problem with "In Secret," the new screen adaptation of Emile Zola's once-shocking 1867 novel "Therese Raquin," is that it lacks that sort of audience-grabbing immediacy. It isn't a bad film so much as it is a bland one that, despite a strong cast and the noblest of intentions, never comes close to making a strong case for its own existence.

Since childhood, the poor and illegitimate Therese (Elizabeth Olsen) has been living in the French countryside with her domineering aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) and her sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton). Her existence is not so much cruel as it is lifeless and we get a glimpse of how she yearns for real excitement early on when she spies on a hunky shirtless farmhand across the river while she grinds the ground beneath her. After coming into some money, Madame Raquin decides that the three of them will move to Paris to open a shop that she and Therese will run while Camille works as an office clerk, a notion that he seems unnaturally excited about. She also decrees that he and Therese shall marry, a move that doesn't exactly excite Therese as she certainly doesn't love him in that way. Nevertheless, she goes along with the plan but little changes and Therese soon finds herself as bored and restless in the city as she was in the provinces.

Things change one day when Camille brings home old childhood friend and current co-worker Laurent (Oscar Issac) to visit. Laurent is everything that Camille is not--bold, brash, hunky and able to breathe without breaking out into a desperate wheeze--and from the moment that they meet, Therese is instantly besotted with him and before too long, the two begin a passionate affair. As their desire for each other continues to grow, it becomes evident that something has to give and this leads to a scene in which the three of them go out on a lake in a rowboat one afternoon but only Therese and Laurent come back after a tragic "accident" claims Camille's life. Thanks to unexpected revelations regarding Camille's will and the need to deflect suspicion, their happiness is short-lived as their lives devolve into bitterness and jealousy that is exacerbated by the need to care for the grieving Madame Raquin after she suffers a massive stroke and which becomes downright homicidal once the deadly secret that binds them is finally revealed.

Filled with passion, adultery, betrayal and murder, "Therese Raquin" was hot stuff back in its day--it also served as an inspiration for James M. Cain's classic novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice"--and those ingredients have certainly continued to stand the test of time with modern audiences. And yet, despite its unabashedly lurid elements, the trouble with "In Secret" is that it doesn't do anything of interest with them. Debuting writer-director Charlie Stratton has handsomely mounted the proceedings but never figures out how to really bring them to life. There is no real spark or energy to be had and even the grand passion that supposedly exists between Therese and Laurent has to be taken mostly on faith because there is little evidence of it on display here.

The film has a bunch of good actors in it but even they are unable to juice things up. Elizabeth Olsen is an extremely gifted actress who usually manages to shine in even the shabbiest of movies (as the few who sat through the "Oldboy" remake can attest) but she never quite gets a grasp on the character of Therese and her work eventually becomes little more than a compilation of her various "O" faces. In his first screen appearance since his brilliant performance in "Inside Llewyn Davis," Oscar Isaac likewise fails to impress because he fails to really convey any of the personal charisma needed to help jolt Therese out of her humdrum existence. Together, they come across like a couple of high school students with a mutual disinterest in each other who have been explicably cast in the roles--they convey the dialogue adequately but none of the passion behind those words. On the other hand, Jessica Lange does breathe a little life into the proceedings by going the full-on camp route throughout, though her post-stroke turn doesn't begin to compare with the sheer goofiness on Anthony Hopkins' transformation into Popeye after his character's stroke in "Legends of the Falls."

"In Secret" is more diorama than drama and even the most ardent of Zola fans out there--such people still presumably exist--are likely to find it to be a bit of a drag after a while. It isn't so much a terrible movie as it is a forgettable and patently unnecessary one that recounts the story with all the excitement of a court stenographer reading back their notes during a trial. The end result is a film that, despite presumably noble intentions, is as blandly formulaic as its rejiggered title.

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originally posted: 02/22/14 04:31:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival series, click here.

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  21-Feb-2014 (R)
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