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Dustin Putman

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In Secret  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by Charlie Stratton.
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Jessica Lange, Tom Felton, Matt Lucas, Shirley Henderson, Mackenzie Crook, John Kavanagh, Matt Devere, Lily Laight, Dimitrije Bogdanov.
2014 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for sexual content and brief violent images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 18, 2014.
The basic tenants of desire and humanity's propensity for paralyzing guilt rise from the muddy waters in the opening shot of "In Secret" and only submerge themselves once more 106 minutes later, after the irreversible damage has been done. Debuting writer-director Charlie Stratton's adaptation of Émile Zola's classic 1867 novel, "Thérèse Raquin," is passionate, urgent and despairing, a period piece with none of the stodgy, antiquated irrelevance certain like-minded films are known to fall victim. Deliberate yet driven in its storytelling, the picture coolly avoids taking sides, recognizing the heinous actions of its heroine while also acknowledging her personal victimization in a time when women were left with few options beyond what was predetermined for them.

When her mother passes away and her father heads to Africa on business, young Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen) is left in the care of her aunt, the widowed Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange). Growing up in the French countryside without quite feeling as if she belongs, the stifled Thérèse is thrown for a loop when she learns she is expected to marry her cousin, the frequently sickly Camille (Tom Felton). The three of them head to Paris to start a new life, Camille shoving off to work during the day and Thérèse helping to run a sundry shop out of their dank alley home. When the son of old family friends, aspiring artist Laurent LeClaire (Oscar Isaac), reenters their lives, Thérèse's sexual repression gives way to an illicit love affair. Wanting desperately to be together, Laurent suggests to Thérèse that their only solution is to remove her unfeeling husband from the equation. Following through with this malicious plan, however, will set off a chain of lies, deceit and shame that will affect everyone around them.

In "In Secret," pent-up lust breeds an unforgivable crime and the resulting self-destruction left in its wake. Symbolic of the very quilt Madame Raquin knits ("Don't make a sound, keep quiet!"), Thérèse is suffocated by her circumstances in a time when wives were expected to service their spouse and little else. Not wanting to be married to Camille at all—theirs is a romantically loveless relationship—she sits by the window of their new living quarters pining for something more. Informed by her aunt that she would never make it on her own, Thérèse finds one sudden light in the seductive Laurent. As she begins to sneak around behind everybody's backs, Thérèse is at once invigorated with newfound vitality and forlorn about her seeming inability to break from her current situation. When Laurent does offer another choice, their fateful decision eternally links them and signifies the turning point of their very undoing. The narrative, while not exactly shocking in its developments, is bold and uncompromising, the film's scandalous pleasures running parallel with the characters' slides into misery.

If Elizabeth Olsen (2013's "Oldboy") is capable of making a wrong step as an actor, she hasn't done it yet. As the yearning, conflicted Thérèse, she is remarkable in the way she effortlessly demands attention on the screen while never stepping into showy, over-the-top histrionics. Able to speak volumes with her face alone, Olsen finds the tragedy in who Thérèse is and what she becomes without trying to claw for audience sympathy. The role is much more complicated than this, and she takes to heart the responsibility of doing justice to its many facets. In a part that could have fallen into thanklessness in lesser hands, Oscar Isaac (2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis") gives the lasciviously manipulative Laurent a sad, alluring texture. There is no question that he cares for Thérèse, but he is also ill-prepared for the committed downward spiral to follow. Jessica Lange (2012's "The Vow") is a riveting Madame Raquin, more achingly vulnerable than the figures she usually plays. Instead of being an aloof wicked stepmother type, Madame Raquin is devoted to her niece. The question becomes whether or not her vested interest relies upon her devotion to Camille and her desire to have someone there to take care of them both as the years press on. Faced with immeasurable loss in the second half, Lange immerses herself in her role's prickly, endless despair. Tom Felton (2012's "The Apparition"), as Camille, and Shirley Henderson (2011's "Meek's Cutoff"), immensely watchable as Madame Raquin's increasingly watchful friend Suzanne, round out the excellent ensemble.

In 2014, stories detailing a nefarious plan's gradual unraveling are old-hat. Using source material from 1867 and positioning it in this same era not only eases the feeling of convention, but gives the plot an additional thematic resonance. Thérèse makes grave errors in judgment not out of overt malice but out of desperation. Stuck like quicksand in a position from which she can see no other escape, she is at the center of a perfect storm which does not subside, but continues to pick up in calamitous intensity. "In Secret" is a brooding and sumptuous thriller, lensed by Florian Hoffmeister in what reminds of a succession of post-impressionistic paintings. The look of the film is handsome, to be sure, but just as absorbing as the premise, evocative strolls through idyllic greenery, stormswept skies barreling down upon lush landscapes, and a lake-set search party guided by lanterns at dusk just a small snapshot of the resplendent imagery to pour over. At the forefront is Elizabeth Olsen's extraordinarily compelling Thérèse, a naïve young woman who has the misfortune of living in the wrong century. She pays the price for her resulting indiscretions, and for her drive to want more than what she has been saddled with. As her dirty conscience eats at her from the inside, the viewer both recoils and cannot turn away. "In Secret" is immensely fine, sudsy climactic theatricality and all.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman