With In Secret, director Charlie Stratton has fashioned a serviceable, straightforward rendering of Emile Zola's novel Therese -- a tale of sex, murder, and guilt -- that's most fascinating for its attempts to add classic noir tropes and lighting schemes to a standard period drama; it's an indication of what Ismail Merchant and James Ivory might have done with a James M. Cain book.
Elizabeth Olsen stars as the title character, a Frenchwoman who, as a child, was forced to move in with her aunt (Jessica Lange) and her sickly cousin Camille (played as an adult by Tom Felton). When she reaches an appropriate age, the aunt manipulates the cousins into marrying; the trio then relocate from the French countryside to Paris, and Therese feels that what little chance she has for a life of her own is being taken away from her.
Enter Camille's friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac), a rakish bohemian artist whose passion and boldness intrigue the repressed Therese. Soon, the pair are involved in a torrid love affair that they can barely keep hidden from Camille and his mother. The thought of being together all the time eventually consumes them, leading to an act that will give them their dream -- as long as nobody finds out.
If nothing else, In Secret is a handsomely mounted film. The costumes are impeccable, and the lighting smartly contrasts the bright pastoral countryside with the gritty, gloomy interiors of 19th century Paris. At the same time, the actors are uniformly solid. Olsen makes Therese a less catatonic version of her character from Martha Marcy May Marlene; she's haunted by what she has seen and done, and Olsen has a knack for playing women who are so wrapped up in their internal conflicts that they aren't quite fully engaged with the people around them. That helps keep up the tension in the third act, as the illicit couple's dirty deeds always seem on the verge of coming to light.
What prevents In Secret from blossoming is that its attempt to blend a tragic costume drama and a horror-tinged film noir never quite coalesces -- the two very different styles fail to cohere, even though you can appreciate what Stratton was trying to accomplish. Further hampering the movie is the fact that the story, while certainly solidly constructed, isn't nearly complicated or involved enough to hook modern audiences. It is, in comparison to pulpy noir classics, tame -- and tame is no good when you need an element of perversity. Give Stratton and his cast points for effort, but sadly, In Secret lacks the passion to haunt us as much as the main character remains haunted by her own fears and desires.
(This review is based on a screening of the film at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival where it played under the name Therese. )