Film review: 'In Secret'

Based on Émile Zola’s 1867 novel ‘Thérèse Raquin’, 'In Secret' tells the story of what a woman trapped in a loveless marriage will do for a chance at freedom

by Natalie Hammond

‘In Secret’ opens with a shot of a river’s murky depths. Its waters aren’t pure or life-giving, but instead stagnant, vengeful and thick with tentacles of some water plant that has sucked the oxygen from its competition. Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen) strains to hear the rush of water when unable to sleep, yearning for a ripple of its freedom, but it will ultimately pull her under and soak the meaning from her existence.

 

As a girl, Thérèse is left with Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) by her father, who later dies on his travels. She grows up caring for her cousin Camille (Tom Felton), a sickly weed of a boy and man, and is later forced to marry him. The family move to Paris, where Camille finds employment as a clerk with his childhood friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac), who embarks on a reckless affair with Thérèse. It is only when Camille, unsuited to the grime and clamour of city life, declares they are returning to the countryside that the adulterers conspire against him.

 

Felton plays Camille as the cringing cousin, parroting out the platitudes of husbandry – ‘I am the husband. I make the decisions,’ being particularly banal – and collapsing onto his wife (who resembles a petrified starfish) with coughs when consummating their union. Felton projects his voice a little too fervently, a habit that, along with smoothing his greasy hair so it sticks to his face, tips into farce.

 

While at times he makes Camillie too easy an object to lambast – he excuses the startled Thérèse when introducing her to Laurent, crying cheerily, ‘She’s never seen a man before!’ – Felton's performance isn’t without pathos. The moments when he visits a captive bear in the park are some of the film’s most nuanced, the beast symbolising his ‘little Thérèse’ – caged and unable to release itself. Thérèse tries to become Camille’s bear, growling at him one night as he cowers in their marriage bed, longing for the sexual being inside of her to be unleashed by another’s desire. The fact Camille doesn’t release her is his tragedy.

 

Although neither Thérèse nor Laurent (right) are sympathetic characters, Olsen and Isaac play their descent into a state close to imprisonment with such skill that we ache for them to be liberated by discovery or death. Olsen’s performance brings out the timelessness of Thérèse’s predicament; she’s a woman terrified of being abandoned and, conversely, the thought of being trapped.  Her identity is tied up with her father’s desertion, a childhood trauma inflicted again by the fear of Laurent’s, and it’s tragic to watch her blotting her cheeks with rouge and seeking the companionship of faceless revellers at the tavern to temper her isolation.  

 

Lange’s performance is the film’s trump card. We first see her as the matriarch of the Raquin household and then as a woman dismembered by grief. The balance is knocked clean out of her – Lange sways from side to side, muttering in looping trains of thought – and her torment presses heavily upon us.

 

In a film that flicks from morgue to dusty shop to dank bedchamber, allowing sunlight to penetrate the greenish gloom for seconds when the lovers come together, it follows that its conclusion invokes a Greek tragedy. Despite being the 15th adaption of Zola’s masterpiece, it manages to feel modern, with lines such as ‘Why are his hands so large?’ from Thérèse adding creases of laughter to an otherwise humourless plot. Its real strength lies in the casting of its female leads, Olsen in particular challenging us to see her failings in a 21st century context. If you’re looking for a period drama with bite, ‘In Secret’ won’t disappoint.

 

‘In Secret’ is in cinemas from 16 May 2014.

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