Longing, passion and an illicit love affair should be ripe material for any romping period drama. Sadly, actor-turned-director Charlie Stratton’s adaptation of Neal Bell’s play, In Secret (2013) – which is in turn based upon Émile Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin – is a tonally perplexing disappointment that fails to truly wrestle with the themes provided. Production designer Uli Hanisch’s sets plunge us into a rather dank 19th century France – with an overly robust enthusiasm for greys – and it’s in this world that we meet Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen, also seen in Godzilla this week). Born out of wedlock, Thérèse is shipped off to live with her seemingly kind, but more accurately conniving aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lang).
Thérèse is quickly wed to her sickly cousin, Camille (Tom Felton, who’s yet to catch a break in the post-Potter years), and they depart for an incredibly drab-looking Paris. From this point onwards sexual frustration abound, and as Camille’s childhood friend, Laurent (Oscar Isaac), enters the scene matters becoming even worse, as his bohemian ways begin to beguile the now rampant Thérèse. There’s a problem much bigger than Stratton’s approach to the text, and that’s that the material is now threadbare. Down throughout cinema’s history we’ve seen In Secret’s story told in a multitude of ways, and Stratton does little of note to cause us to raise an eyebrow. Olsen, usually reliable, offers a weak turn, failing to convince us that she’s the firebrand of raw, unadulterated emotion Zola intended Thérèse to be.
The flagrant visual imagery, patronisingly holding our hands whilst explaining how trapped Thérèse is in a loveless marriage, makes it all rather chewy and flattens what good work the cast do. Felton is oddly enjoyable with his petulant and pathetic performance, but the supporting cast (Mackenzie Crook, Shirley Henderson, Matt Lucas et al) makes the entire affair feel like an after-dark Boxing Day drama. It’s perhaps unfair to put Stratton’s adaptation on a par with Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s abysmal Bel Ami (2011), but there are comparisons to be made in how both botch the source material. There’s nothing subtle in this adaptation, revelling as it does in its own frothiness, and yet it washes over the eyes. Throughout, there’s a feeling more could have been achieved. Sadly, In Secret’s script is so loaded with dud lines that any of the more successful elements are quickly erased from memory.