Elizabeth Olsen plays a woman forced into a loveless marriage in "In Secret." Credit: Phil Bray Elizabeth Olsen plays a woman forced into a loveless marriage in "In Secret."
Credit: Phil Bray

'In Secret'
Director: Charlie Stratton
Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The problem with adapting any novel is the potential of losing what may be its most distinguishable feature: the language. A picture is worth a thousand words, or many, many more. What someone like Charles Dickens spends pages describing, in beautiful, flowing prose, can be shown in a single frame. But much can be lost in translation: the character of the writing, the details that make it unique. Stripped of its prose, Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin” is a fairly typical tale of love and murder. It could be a soap opera arc. That’s mostly what it becomes in the so-so “In Secret,” which strips it down to its bare bones plot and has little else to make it special, beyond a few stranded actors.

Elizabeth Olsen looks as lost as her character, Therese, an orphaned beauty forced to live with her aunt, the cruel Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange). The Madame is nice only to those of higher social station, as well as to her son, the terminally ill and pale Camille (Tom Felton). Therese is forced to marry Camille, but what seems like a long life of loveless oppression is brightened upon meeting his friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac), a painter who gets her hot and bothered. But there’s still Camille in the way — but can they live with rubbing him out?

 

Of course they can’t, because no one ever has (unless they're in a Woody Allen picture). Therese and Laurent go through the motions of lovers forced into an unthinkable crime — a tale told a million times before and a million times after. It’s not the plot that makes any of these tellings unique, but the way it’s told. “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” which follows a similar path but from the male perspective, is great because of its style, not because of the bare bones plot.

“In Secret” whittles it down to the bone, keeping only period garb, admittedly beautiful musty lighting and, in the case of three of its leads, fake British accents. There’s intimations that first-time director Charles Stratton meant for more of a comedy: Felton (Draco from the “Harry Potter” films) is good fun as a sickly grotesque, sniveling and arrogant but also touchingly pathetic. A supporting cast of Raquin family friends is filled out by stars of English comedy, like Matt Lucas and Mackenzie Crook. A broadly comic version of “Therese Raquin” — or even a trashy one that kept in step with Lange's inevitably hammy work — may have been a betrayal of Zola’s work, but it would have been something. Instead, this speeds through a plot, hitting all the hairpin turns but missing the essence.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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