Opens Fri., Feb. 21 at Meridian, Seven Gables, and Oak Tree. Rated R. 101 minutes.
Within the pages of an 1867 Emile Zola novel lie the seeds of film noir. The hothouse cravings and bloody deeds of Thérèse Raquin travel in a straight line to James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, books that became a poisoned wellspring for the tawdry postwar American cinema known as noir. Zola gives you the skeleton of the form, fleshed out with a bored married woman, a handsome artist, sexual combustion, and murder. This corker has been newly filmed, in its original period setting, as In Secret—an unfortunately stolid version of Zola’s story.
Rising star Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) plays the central role. Thérèse has been raised by her fearsome aunt (Jessica Lange, almost but not quite breaking through to something formidable), whose own son Camille (Tom Felton) has been a sickly near-brother to Thérèse during childhood. She’s forced to marry Camille as a practical matter when the family moves to Paris, a move that puts her in proximity to Camille’s work friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac, from Inside Llewyn Davis). Laurent fancies himself a painter, but Isaac has the eyes of a born sensualist, and one imagines Laurent has spent more time chasing other men’s wives than perfecting his brushstrokes. He and Thérèse ignite; murder occurs; the descent into anxiety and guilt commences. But maybe guilt is the wrong word—there’s the sense that Thérèse and Laurent are mostly bored again and disgusted by what they’ve done. Without the thrill of adultery, even their bodies don’t interest them much. We killed a guy for this?
Based on Neal Bell’s 1991 play, In Secret is the feature debut of director Charlie Stratton, who does low-rent atmosphere just fine but flattens the action into a steady, dreary slog. His best decision is casting Olsen, whose quick responses show us how Thérèse’s ennui mutates into desire with uncontrollable force. And by the way, Harry Potter fans, Felton (aka Draco Malfoy) is much more spirited in adult form than he ever was at Hogwarts; his Camille is pasty-faced, sincere, and none too bright. Yet these sparks aren’t enough to slap In Secret into shape. This is a story that needs the relentless motion of a whirlpool, but it dribbles away well before the end.