A broad, crude mutilation of Emile Zola’s noirish romance Thérèse Raquin that prioritizes heavy petting over plot, In Secret not only forgoes psychological depth, it skirts the edge of accidental comedy, suggesting more an adaptation of a harlequin novel. The plight of its titular antiheroine (Elizabeth Olsen) is established as a given in a single decade-jumping cut in the first few minutes, and all but disregarded after that. Writer-director Stratton instead focuses his attention on broad-strokes characterizations of the story’s supporting characters. Camille (Tom Felton), Thérèse’s sickly cousin and husband via forced marriage, is presented as a Gollum-like buffoon, all sweat and slime and laughable cluelessness. By contrast, his friend and business partner, Laurent (Oscar Isaac), makes such an archetypal Adonis he might as well be painted gold; with his stubble and rumbling voice and suggestive waggling of paintbrushes, he seems to exist solely for the purpose of ripping open bodices. And that he does, as he and Thérèse embark on an affair that unfolds in a series of pulpy montages seemingly designed for the Twilight set. This and every other plot turn is so overtly telegraphed—by swelling music, foreboding dialogue, and lots and lots of pouting—as to rid the narrative of all momentum, even if you’re unfamiliar with Zola’s text.
In Secret is a weirdly monochromatic film—both figuratively, in that its actors function more as emotive masks, each emblematic of a single emotion, and also literally, via an excessively drab color palette that keeps the film as unsurprisingly visually as it is narratively. The Parisian apartment that Thérèse and Camille share with his mother, the imperious Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), is so sparingly lit it functions as a nebulous void—an intriguing aesthetic decision, and brave in its historical accuracy, but one that only further oversells its protagonists’ mopey misery. There’s no sense of space to the film, just as there’s no sense of Thérèse’s interior life; all the filmmakers provide is a forbidding, monotonous wall of gray.
Lange makes Madame Raquin’s latent severity dangerous and surprising, but the actress is also undermined by some of In Secret’s more laughably absurd flourishes: One sequence in particular begins with some trite risking-exposure behavior on the part of Thérèse and Laurent and ends with Thérèse receiving cunnilingus from Laurent underneath her hoop skirt while an oblivious Madame Raquin rubs the girl’s shoulders and coos niceties. In a very different adaptation of Zola’s novel, directed by someone with a knack for absurdism, such a scene might actually work. But Stratton’s film tries to be romantic, fatalist, open-hearted, sadistically gothic, and yes, perhaps even absurdist, but never any two of those things at once. The result is a film afraid to take emotional plunges or ask difficult questions. It takes a revered text and turns it something inexcusable: simplistic.