Oscar Isaac and Elizabeth Olsen basically always deliver great performances on screen, and the two combined is really something to behold, even if the 17th Century setting of “In Secret” feels a bit stifled and claustrophobic. Isaac and Olsen command the screen with compelling performances and organic chemistry and are helped by solid direction from Charlie Stratton, who set them against a heavy, dreary backdrop apropos of the dark story he’s retelling. A tale of restrained passion, murder and resentment in Victorian France is no easy to sit through popcorn flick, but Emile Zola‘s classic novel tells a very specific story in “Therese Raquin” and Stratton has brought it to life in the most traditional, solid way possible, with his actors elevating the material to something even more compelling.
The plot is a simple one, its theme direct. Olsen’s Therese is forced to marry her sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton) and seems doomed to live a passion-less, mundane life with him and his overbearing mother (also her father’s sister, played by Jessica Lange). Both are kind to Therese and treat her like the family she is, but she clearly yearns for more. Enter Isaac’s Laurent, a banker by trade with an artist’s soul who immediately zeroes in on Therese’s repressed sexuality, sensing her mirroring his own passions. An affair conducted under the oblivious noses of Camille and Madame is immediately born, but soon, even that is not enough for the ambitious young lovers. “If only he would go away,” Therese laments about her ever-present husband. Laurent immediately rejoins that he could “go away,” and it could look like an accident.
Olsen and Isaac are tasked with carrying the movie for the most part, at first with their forbidden and thus more exciting passion for each other, then with the growing resentment and hatred of each other after their heinous act is done. The way their feelings for each other are flipped like a light switch after the deed is indeed a highlight, as a film that starts off with a rather romantic notion swiftly becomes something much more sinister and hopeless. It’s not even the murder itself, but the immediate realization that Therese and Laurent were never meant to be anything more than a forbidden tryst, and that Therese was always fated to her dark and dreary existence. It’s a depressing story to tell, and viewers may not find much joy or entertainment in sitting through the couple’s downfall for two hours, but Stratton certainly tells “In Secret” the way it should be told, restraints and all.
It’s less a morality tale about selfishness and guilt than about the dangers of ambition, which makes it all the more crippling and claustrophobic as Therese and Laurent suddenly find themselves not just trapped in a mundane existence, but with each other, constant reminders of what they did, and ultimately, that what they did was all for nothing. Olsen and Isaac convey their sense of hopelessness very well, oftentimes using non verbal cues to express their turmoil. Their disastrous wedding night, the one they wanted so badly, is a prime example of the two actors’ immense talent and screen presence. Meanwhile, Lange and Felton offer the perfect counterpart to their scheming, never-satisfied ways, bumbling about quite oblivious but perfectly satisfied with their lot in life, even with Camille’s sickness. The memory of Camille, which continues to haunt his murderers in surprisingly genuinely scary ways, as well as Madame’s growing realization of the truth, also contribute to the film’s largely successful retelling of Zola’s classic novel.