Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin has been adapted many times for film and television—most recently inspiring the vampire horror of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst—and it’s inspired other works, like The Postman Always Rings Twice, which have themselves been adapted many times for film and television. And for good reason: It’s lusty and dramatic, a story of forbidden love, betrayal, guilt, and murder, and it can be rendered through simple plotting. Once called Thérèse, now premièring under the more generic title In Secret, the latest adaptation of Zola’s book is a reminder of how a sturdy story can go amiss when the emphasis is put in all the wrong places. It’s a curious case where the drama’s passion, eroticism, and intensity have been dialed back too far, while other elements, like two key supporting performances, have been blown up to ghoulish proportions. Though it sounds like a contradiction, the film could be described as both dull and over the top.
Still searching for a proper encore to her mesmerizing turn in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen puts her luminescent green eyes to work as Thérèse, a hothouse flower left to wilt in the dark. When she was a young ragamuffin in 1860s Paris, her widowed father, a sailor with a restless spirit, dropped her off with his sister, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), who resides in a dank country home. From the first scene, when Madame Raquin’s sickly little boy is curled up in her arms, it’s clear to Thérèse and the audience that Camille, played as an adult by Harry Potter series villain Tom Felton, will be getting the bulk of the love and attention. When Thérèse comes of age, her repression only stokes her sexual curiosity—in one silly scene, she’s shown grinding against a sodden riverbed while spying on a hunky neighbor thwacking wheat with a scythe—but Madame Raquin forces her into a marriage with Camille, and the three of them move to Paris.
Once there, Thérèse’s wandering eyes find her husband’s friend, Laurent (Oscar Isaac), who’s as handsome and assured as Camille is weak and pitiful. Laurent starts regularly climbing up a second, secret entrance to Thérèse’s room for afternoon trysts—all rendered with sleepy arthouse tastefulness—while Madame Raquin works cluelessly in the shop below. When the two conspire to remove Camille as an obstacle to their love, In Secret should shift into thornier moral territory, especially with the delectably nasty twist Zola’s novel has in store for Madame Raquin. Yet the pulse of the film only raises a beat or two.
There’s nothing outrageously wrong with the way Stratton has staged In Secret, but his lack of imagination and an accumulation of questionable choices begin to catch up with him after a while. Lange’s recent habit of doing too much with a role makes her Madame Raquin seem like the work of late-period Joan Crawford, and Camille’s conception as a weak, pallid, sweating codfish of a man edges him into cartoon territory, too. Stratton’s Camille-like tentativeness does more damage, though, because it always seems like he’s more interested in not mucking up Zola’s story than in communicating it from a particular point of view. The reason he was interested in being the umpteenth person to adapt this story should be readily apparent in the film itself. Based on the result, it’s a total mystery.