Ghost story or black comedy? "In Secret" can't pick a lane

By Genevieve Valentine
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 19, 2014

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An ill-fated affair: Murderous lovers Laurent (Oscar Isaac) and Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen) bear the brunt of their villainy in "In Secret."

Adapted from Émile Zola’s 1867 psychological drama Thérèse Raquin, In Secret follows Thérèse, a stifled housewife who escapes marriage to Camille, her sickly cousin, by sneaking from under the watchful eye of her aunt and sleeping with the dashing Laurent. Eventually, the lovers plot—from what one assumes is an extremely limited list of options—to drown Camille in order to be together, but afterward, their guilt manifests as his ghost, driving them both to tragic downfall.

Halfway between a breathless potboiler and a meditation on the symbiosis of desire and regret, Thérèse Raquin is always a tonally dicey proposition. It’s a ghost tale in which we spend the first third getting to know the ghost, a murder mystery in which the murderers are well known and a romance that barely grows before it’s poisoned. Unfortunately, in trying to give each aspect its due, In Secret writer-director Charlie Stratton dilutes some of the passion that drives both its love story and its terrors, creating a whole that’s workmanlike but never quite as powerful as it tries to be.

That doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. Details are deftly sketched throughout, particularly the brisk but evocative first act. Thérèse sees Paris as a slice of city through a blindered carriage window; their alleyway shop is a maze of cramped but exposed rooms, walls and merchandise the color of stagnant water. In one of the most telling beats, Camille (Tom Felton) mentions offhandedly that he’s been at the zoo to watch the bear pacing in its cage; in the face of such oblivious freedom and such deep irony, Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen) can only stare.

But Camille means no harm, and that becomes part of the trouble. In Felton’s hands, Camille is a fumbling and myopic but earnest young man aware of his wife’s unhappiness but somehow unable to fathom doing much about it. Still, he tries—he sneaks her a nosegay of daises with the glee of someone pulling off a bank heist—and for someone so petulant on paper, Camille feels the most dimensionally human of the lead trio. While Olsen and Oscar Isaac make a convincingly poisonous pair, their initial ardor falls a little shy of murderous desperation. Partially, this is because their courtship is introduced with the speed of a prologue, with work that’s perhaps too efficient—Thérèse describes walking past Laurent’s empty chair as if it contains his ghost, which feels like a potentially lovely cinematic moment scrapped for lack of time. And while the post-murder psychodrama requires arguably more time to unfold, skating across their initial consuming attraction throws off the dramatic heft of the second half. Thérèse is operating early from a position of detached distaste that undercuts her sensual awakening, and though Isaac is as excellent as ever, his Laurent occasionally feels adrift in what should be staggering passion and nascent villainy. Camille’s ghost, rather than crowding them with the soggy vision of a Gothic horror, remains an elusive haunter and occasional jump-scare between two people who, without that spark of passion to ignite them, feel as if they were always doomed to black-comedy spite.

That thread of dark comedy is one of the sharpest In Secret presents, and it feels odd whenever it strays from these jolts of energy into more well-worn territory about hopeless circumstances or self-recrimination. There are moments of tantalizing darkness that feel as well realized as this streak of sinister comedy—Thérèse and Laurent’s wedding night includes a recreation of Camille’s murder—but they’re islands of psychosis, not symptoms of a downward spiral, and don’t carry the suspense they could. Instead, the cast comes together most wholly when playing to the most cynical aspects of the work.

Jessica Lange, who never disappoints, delivers a Madame Raquin devoured by grief after the loss of her son, but her early manipulation is shameless maternal gaslighting that keeps her feeling suitably antagonistic until disaster strikes her. She’s buoyed in her small follies by the Raquins’ circle of friends, including Shirley Henderson and comic talents Matt Lucas and Mackenzie Crook, suitably introduced as grasping hands at a game of dominoes. Their well-meaning, shortsighted interference creates a background burble of social commentary that makes the group scenes crackle with potential satire that, unfortunately, fizzles out before it hits the high notes it’s positioned to. Henderson’s Suzanne, in particular, presents Thérèse with a living cautionary tale of a fidgety discontent who loathes her husband. Yet as the psychological horror increases, professional scene-stealer Henderson becomes a delightfully unwitting Final Girl, sympathetic and laughable by turns—a perfect offset to the disillusioned couple.

But in the end, In Secret can’t quite commit to this tack either, and Olsen can’t quite hold together in the middle of Isaac and Lange, both talented but occasionally feeling as though they’re in different movies. And while its muddy blue hues are effectively claustrophobic start to finish, somehow, sadly, In Secret’s script can’t manage the same tonal control.

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