For his feature debut, Charlie Stratton has taken on ‘Therese Racquin’, Émile Zola’s 1867 melodramatic novel. Abandoned with her aunt (Jessica Lange) as a child, Therese (Elizabeth Olsen) becomes something of a nurse maid to her sickly cousin, Camille (Tom Felton).
After living an isolated life in the country it is decided that she and Camille should marry before the family heads to Paris for him to find work. Once in Paris the Racquins encounter Camille’s old friend, Laurent (Oscar Isaac), and he and Therese begin a torrid affair with devastating consequences.
Stratton has previously directed Neal Bell’s stage adaptation of Zola’s work, so is clearly very familiar with the text and its dynamics. So it is a pity that In Secret really fails to set the screen alight. The rather more risqué scenes between Therese and Laurent manage to lift the piece briefly out of the doldrums but even this passion is short lived and we are soon back to the dismal existence of earlier in the film.
This is not to say that the visual tone of the film is out of keeping with its subject; Florian Hoffmeister’s gloomy and claustrophobic photography of Paris when Therese is out of sorts is perfectly apt; it’s simply that there is so little to sink your teeth into that the whole film feels strangely one-note for all its dramatic intentions.
The trouble is that melodrama has been so successfully satirised, and so often, that it is hard to take seriously unless done very well. In Secret does not carry its melodrama well enough to stop you feeling slightly giggly, especially come the closing scenes. It is particularly irksome when Gabriel Yared’s score is the perfect foil for the suspense that is decidedly missing from the screen.
Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac are watchable as the troubled couple and Tom Felton impresses as the enthusiastic yet weak-willed Camille. In particular, Olsen and Isaac do well with their individual descents into emotional hell; Olsen’s wide-eyed innocence twisting into the perfect level of paranoia.
Therese lives on the periphery. The bond between Camille and his mother is too tight for her to break (if, indeed, she wanted to), and she doesn’t involve herself in their social life if she can help it.
Until Laurent enters her life she is merely a shadow. Once he manages to capture her attention, she finally becomes the centre of her own story.
Her sexual awakening is accompanied by a rather obvious brightening of her wardrobe but Olsen plays the joy at this new-found (and dangerous) freedom wonderfully.
Jessica Lange is somewhat overwhelmed by a role that gives her little to do but emote gratuitously until struck down by illness. Her more dramatic moments in the latter stages of the film are better handled but still rather flimsy in execution. The supporting cast does its best with very minor roles but Shirley Henderson (a great character actress) seems to be appearing in a different film, flouncing about and overreacting as might befit a more Austen-like production.
Stratton’s take on Zola’s novel fails to engage either the heart or the head enough to relish the unfolding melodrama and falls too flat to be anything other than distinctly average.