I don’t know if there’s a single way to ensure the success of a 19th century costume drama, but generally I prefer those that opt for dramatic urgency over undisguised melodrama or slavish devotion to source material, movies that arrive in theaters without a trace of musty aroma.
In Secret — an emotionally remote rendition of Emile Zola’s 1867 novel Therese Raquin — doesn’t fit the bill. Zola’s story of murder and infidelity — considered shocking in its day — proves a boiled roast of a movie, a story cooked to near flavorlessness.
R for sexual content and brief violent images
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Zola’s story involves betrayal and murder, carried out in the name of love — or perhaps under the influence of unleashed ardor.
Young Therese (Elizabeth Olsen) languishes in a lifeless marriage to her sickly husband Camille (Tom Felton). Camille and Therese were raised together by their aunt (Jessica Lange), who also arranged for the cousins to marry.
After a move from the country to Paris, the family is visited by one of Camille’s old buddies, Laurent (Oscar Isaac, most recently of Inside Llewyn Davis). Laurent and Therese begin their heated affair — which consists of a lot of lunchtime trysts. It’s only a matter of time until they conspire to rid the world of Camille.
A little more chemistry between Isaac and Olsen might have helped carry the movie into its even more dour second half.
Once the dastardly deed has been accomplished — poor Camille is pushed out of a row boat and drowned — director Charlie Stratton works to give the murderous duo their moral comeuppance. Transgression must be punished, and both Olsen and Isaac enter full suffering mode.
Olsen, terrific in Martha Marcy May Marlene, can’t seem to find a handle on her character, relying on abrupt shifts in mood, pouty silences and wide-eyed gaping.
Isaac knows how to brood, and Lange gives it her all, particularly in late scenes in which a stroke leaves her character unable to move or speak. Felton — who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies — might be the most convincing of all.
It’s never a good sign when an audience laughs at a movie’s most serious moments. Laughter rippled through the audience at a preview screening when the movie reached its grim finale. So much for upping the story’s tragic ante.
And truth be told, the finale was a bit anti-climactic. In Secret already had spent far too much time stuck in the visual mud of a darkened, lower-class Paris.
Savvy audiences will notice the similarities between Zola’s story and many film noir plots, but even those who don’t care about such things may find themselves mired in a tale that seems to be unfolding without benefit of conviction.
No one, by the way, feigns a French accent, which might normally be a relief, except the movie feels as if it has landed in the wrong country. In Secret slogs through the major plot points of Zola’s novel while managing a strange trick: It feels about as French as an English breakfast.