Review: In Secret (2014)

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Director: Charlie Stratton
Screenwriter: Charlie Stratton
Based on Thérèse Raquin, a novel by Émile Zola
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Jessica Lange, Tom Felton, Matt Lucas, Shirley Henderson, Mackenzie Crook & John Kavanagh
Runtime: 107 min // Certificate: 15


It’s much too easy to dismiss In Secret, Charlie Stratton’s directorial debut, as a hysterical melodrama because, well, that’s exactly what it is. “Melodrama”, however, isn’t always a dirty word. In fact, when done with just enough “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” self-awareness, as it is in Stratton’s film, the type of melodrama upon which In Secret gorges can be very rewarding indeed. It shrieks, howls, slaps you in the face with blunt metaphors and indulges in some kitschy eroticism, all in its bid to sell this tired old story to a new audience. The effects of this approach, though far from subtle, are strangely endearing.

To give you some idea of just how ridiculous it is, In Secret begins with the talented Olsen sister (Godzilla) masturbating on a wet patch of grass and, depending on how you view these things, gets no better / worse from there. The, by my count, 481st adaptation of Zola’s novel, it then follows Olsen’s character, Thérèse, as she struggles through her loveless, sexless marriage to her sickly cousin, Camille (Felton; Rise of the Planet of the Apes). A sexually frustrated young woman, Thérèse seems destined to waste her life working in the dusty Parisian shop that her Aunt – Madame Raquin (Lange; American Horror Story) – owns, until one fateful night she meets Laurent (Isaac; Inside Llewyn Davis), Camille’s smouldering and dashing friend, with whom she embarks on an illicit affair. In the heat of their insatiable lust for one another, the two plan to start a new life together. First, however, they must “dispose” of both Camille and Madame Raquin in order to null the marriage and inherit their wealth.

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Now, on paper the film sounds like a subpar, Endless Love-esque catastrophe, so the cast list might seem somewhat baffling, yet there’s actually much more to it than that. The film explores the notion that lust is more powerful than love, and that lust can lead good people to do terrible things. Thérèse’s insatiable desires, perhaps with anyone, are so intense that she is willing to kill her husband just to get what she wants. She is a victim of neglect, from her Father, who abandons her as a child, from Madame Raquin, who fails to give her the freedom she craves so desperately, and most of all from her husband, who remains in a childlike state when it comes to sex and sexuality.

Similarly, when it comes to the eroticism at the heart of the tale, Stratton plays it surprisingly well, if not a little cautiously. The lunchtime trysts between Thérèse and Laurent are exciting and sexy, and they stand in stark contrast to the almost laughably frenzied drama that runs through the rest of the film. It’s clear that Stratton has at least some grasp of humour, as evidenced by the hilarious marital turmoil displayed by Olivier (Lucas; Alice in Wonderland) and Suzanne (Henderson; Filth), and the Carry On-esque scene where Laurent is forced to hide from Madame Raquin under Thérèse’s dress. In this respect the melodrama often feels purposeful, almost as though Stratton is satirically indulging in the worst excesses of the novels of the time in which his film is set, though this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t grate all the same.

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In Secret is far richer than most films of its ilk, though you really do have to forgive its rather flagrant transgressions with regards to plot, character and subtlety. It’s a film that survives primarily on the strength of its performances, with Jessica Lange in particular at the top of her game. Though she’s typecast as the domineering Mother figure, she plays it brilliantly, particularly in the final act when she loses control of her voice and must resort to facial expressions and frantic eye movements alone. Olsen is solid but unremarkable as Thérèse while Isaac is manages to be both repellent and smouldering, though again somewhat unremarkable. Felton, meanwhile, is Felton; he plays the same sneaky, snotty little child who gets what he deserves as he does in almost all of his films, though fair’s fair, he’s got that character type down to a tee now and, in the context of this film, he just about pulls it off.

If you’re looking for a subtle, intelligent adaptation of Zola’s novel, In Secret ain’t for you. I must admit, I went in expecting to loathe it and came out mildly impressed, though the flaws are still much too imposing to just ignore. Nonetheless, if you’re willing to sit back and accept high melodrama for high melodrama’s sake, you might just have some fun with this, insofar as you can have any fun at all with a film about a sexually repressed woman going completely off the rails and attempting to kill her husband and Mother-in-Law… still though, it’s well worth a look, if only for Jessica Lange’s performance.