In Secret, directed by Charlie Stratton and based on the 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola, tells the story of Thérèse (played by Elizabeth Olsen) and her loveless marriage with her sickly cousin, Camille (Tom Felton). Having lost her father, the orphaned and sexually repressed Thérèse is left without options, allowing her overbearing aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) to arrange the marriage to her son. Thérèse feels trapped in her life with Camille and his mother, until Camille introduces her to his childhood friend, Laurent LeClaire (Oscar Isaac). Though she initially dislikes Laurent, she comes to love him and the two begin a passionate affair in secret. As the two behave in an increasingly brazen manner, their daily trysts become more and more difficult to hide. Eventually, they realize that something must be done to free themselves from Camille and Madame Raquin’s suffocating presence, and they hatch a plan to be rid of their tormenters once and for all.
One of the things that is most striking about In Secret is its uniquely American qualities. First and foremost, though the story is set in 19th century Paris, one would hardly know from watching the film, as everyone speaks English with vaguely old-fashioned accents. It is also a story that, in my opinion, would have been treated with more dignity by a French director. Stratton, who has primarily worked in American television, approaches the subject matter with all the grace and nuance of a bull in a china shop. Each new revelation in the story can be predicted far in advance, and the entire production, from the staging to the horribly unrealistic plot progression, is very amateurish. Despite the severe ramifications that would befall Thérèse and Laurent were their secret to be revealed, they act in the most thoughtless ways imaginable as they clumsily conceal their passionate lovemaking from Camille and Madame Raquin.
Though the characters make decisions that no sane person would make, the direction is equally baffling. With a supporting cast that is more closely associated with comedic roles, In Secret suffers from an uneven tone, especially considering the rather grave subject matter. The frequent meetings between the Raquin family’s local circle of friends have an almost frivolous mood, which, for better or worse, fails to support the tension building between Thérèse, Laurent, and Madame Raquin. These gatherings include Olivier (played by Matt Lucas), his wife, Suzanne (Shirley Henderson), and Grivet (Mackenzie Crook), among others. These ancillary characters primarily function as prying eyes, and offer some mild comedic relief from an otherwise dreary storyline. Sadly, this leaves these talented actors with very little purpose in the film, and only makes In Secret feel that much more like a bad soap opera. As the story progresses, the situation escalates to a somewhat ludicrous degree, and the most frustrating aspect is that all of the misfortunes that befall Thérèse and Laurent could have been avoided with just an ounce of restraint.
Much like a bad horror movie, the audience is left wondering how and why the characters do much of what they do, to the degree that the “tension” quickly turns to frustration and disbelief. If not for the admirable performances by Jessica Lange and Elizabeth Olsen, and the dark, moody cinematography, the film would be a complete mess. Though some will find merit in the heartbreaking story of a woman trapped in a society that does not permit her to express her sexuality or even live freely without a husband, there are other films that deal with similar subject matters in a much more artistic and believable fashion.
In Secret is currently available to stream via Amazon Prime here.
Rating: ★★½ out of 5