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Zola's Scandalous Raquin Clan, Sordid 'Secret' And All

Therese (Elizabeth Olsen) and Laurent (Oscar Issac) have a scandalous affair — and some real chemistry. But the unevenness of <em>In Secret, </em>adapted from Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin, moves their plotline away from center.
Therese (Elizabeth Olsen) and Laurent (Oscar Issac) have a scandalous affair — and some real chemistry. But the unevenness of <em>In Secret, </em>adapted from Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin, moves their plotline away from center.

Emile Zola was one of the founders of naturalism, and his first major work, 1867's Therese Raquin, is full of precise physical description. The novel's plot is utter melodrama, though, and that's the aspect emphasized by In Secret, the latest in a century-long string of film and TV adaptations.

With its small cast of characters and limited number of locations, the book does lend itself to dramatization. In fact, writer-director Charlie Stratton's retelling of Zola's shocker was derived in part from the stage version by Neal Bell.

Renamed to distinguish it from last year's film of Francois Mauriac's Therese, In Secret begins in a claustrophobic household. Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) dotes on her sickly son, Camille. She accepts her motherless niece into their suburban home, but Therese must live the same closed-in life as her perpetually feverish cousin. They even share a bed, which gives ideas only to Therese.

After Camille and Therese grow up to be Tom Felton and Elizabeth Olsen, Madame Raquin announces that the two will marry. Then the trio moves into Paris, where Camille becomes an office clerk while the women run a fabric shop.

The Raquins attract a group of regular domino-playing guests whose fatuity and cluelessness are exemplified by wide-eyed Suzanne (Shirley Henderson). One visitor, though, is in a different category: Camille's coworker Laurent (Oscar Isaac), an aspiring painter with a feral sexuality quite unlike anything Therese has ever sensed in her husband.

Laurent and Therese begin an affair, and soon decide that Camille must disappear. On a boating excursion, they drown the inconvenient man without attracting any suspicion, even from his overprotective mother. But after his death, Camille will not leave the lovers in peace.

Set mostly in gloomy rooms and passageways, In Secret takes its look from Zola's description of the Paris street where the Raquins have their shop and home: "In winter when the weather is bad, on foggy mornings, the panes send only darkness down to the slimy flagstones, a soiled and sordid night."

If the movie fails to conjure soiled 19th-century Paris, that's not primarily because it was shot in Hungary and Serbia. More problematic are the English-language dialogue and actors who speak in a variety of accents and perform in a range of styles.

Olsen and Isaac's American mode — call it, uh, naturalism — clashes with the more mannered approach of Britain's Felton (best known as Harry Potter nemesis Draco Malfoy) and Henderson. Lange, meanwhile, plays Madame — a role that Bette Davis would've snacked cheerfully on --with Davis-style overstatement.

Since neither the lovers' personalities nor plight registers strongly, Lange's Madame Raquin comes to dominate the movie — even after she suffers a stroke that leaves her trapped inside her own body, the final prisoner to be locked away in the family's penitentiary of an existence.

Yet Madame Raquin's fate is not especially poignant, since the part teeters at the edge of parody. Particularly laughable is a scene where the half-paralyzed woman manages to coax spilled ink into a perfectly legible message.

In Secret is similarly readable. There's no mystery to its characters' frustrations, hostilities or — despite all the heavy breathing — lusts. Rather than revealing the brutish natures of Zola's characters, the movie's lovers seem simply to be following a yellowed script, more with duty than passion.

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