Using marital infidelity as the catalyst for a romantic thriller is a time honored tradition. But it’s also one of the hardest film genres to be able to pull off successfully. There’s a fine line between being engaging and being boring or even trashy. “In Secret,” in limited release today, shows promise, but it lacks the follow through necessary to keep the viewer engaged.
As a young child, Therese (Elizabeth Olsen, "Martha Marcy May Marlene") is abandoned by her father and left to live with her aunt (Jessica Lange). In her new home, Therese is forced to take care of her sick cousin Camille (Tom Felton, the "Harry Potter" movies) as they grow up. But once they reach adulthood, her aunt arranges for the two to get married and the family to move to Paris. Trapped in a loveless marriage, as she is beginning to come into her own sexual awakening, Therese begins an affair with Camille’s best friend, which leads to tragic results.
In his feature film directorial debut, Charlie Stratton – who also wrote the adapted screenplay – offers a mixed bag of tricks. He is able to effectively use shadows throughout as a physical metaphor about the secrets the characters are keeping. The film continually gets darker until its final moments when all secrets are revealed. It’s not the most subtle way to amplify the character’s actions, but it is effective.
What could have been an enthrallingly twisted tale of deception and infidelity, “In Secret” never lives up to its potential. Based on the novel “Therese Raquin” by Emile Zola, the film’s narrative quickly falls apart. Stratton doesn't offer anything new to the genre here and the lusty sex scenes never generate enough heat to warrant further mentioning. At times, the film feels rushed, causing it to lack consistency with the minor details. An example is when Camille announces he is moving his family back to the country because Paris isn’t healthy, despite the fact that it is during this portion of the film when he is the liveliest. There’s a difference between leaving some ambiguity in a film and leaving gaping plot holes in the narrative.
The ensemble here is strong, but the women are particularly strong. Elizabeth Olsen caps off her time as the reigning indie queen with “In Secret” before she moves on bigger budget popcorn fare later this year. She has the chops for the unhappy, sexually repressed Therese, but not much is asked of the actress. Jessica Lange, on the other hand, steals the film. As opposed to her sometimes over the top performances on TV’s “American Horror Story,” Lange is muted and more subtle here. She is able to convey more in just her facial expression that many actors can with the use of their entire body.
Despite a solid cast, “In Secret” is lacking where it counts – in its narrative. Stratton is efficient enough technically, but he misses the mark when it comes to the storytelling. This is a film that should be kept a secret.