There have been many stage and screen adaptations of “Therese Raquin,” Emile Zola’s 1867 novel about love and betrayal. Perhaps most notable was filmmaker Marcel Carne’s 1953 version, “The Adultress,” starring Simone Signoret and Raf Vallone. It was a classic slice of film noir; a feverish take on a sordid love affair.
“In Secret” is the latest rendering of Zola’s bleak story. Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton and Jessica Lange offer compelling performances in a provocative remake that’s stirring until its withered end.
Set in 1860s France, Therese (played seductively by Olsen) is sent to live with her aunt, Madame Raquin (Lange), an entitled and needy dame who forces her niece to marry her sickly son, Camille (played delicately and artfully by Felton).
When Camille gets a job as a clerk in Paris, the three move from the country to the bustling city, where Madame Raquin opens a fabric shop. Resigned to an uninspired life working in her aunt’s store, Therese, who’s become increasingly lascivious, is even welcoming the idea of sex with her effeminate cousin to satisfy her desires.
When she meets Laurent (Isaac), Camille’s childhood friend, the two begin an erotic affair. Olsen and Isaac are extremely effective together and their lust-ridden scenes — and there are plenty — only intensify. As Therese and Laurent continue to sneak around, their devotion deepens.
Uninhibited and raw, Isaac is at his sexiest. In his first lead role since starring in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-nominated “Inside Llewyn Davis,” he offers another authentic performance and we see his talents swell in many directions. As Llewyn, Isaac had one consistent tone: gloomy. Here, he easily shifts from charming and arousing to dark and devious while seducing Therese and leading her down a murderous path.
To be together freely, Laurent devises a plan to kill Camille and make it look like an accident. Therese agrees to be an accomplice and the deed is done.
With her cousin dead, Therese is faced with increasing guilt and begins to lash out, including a tirade against Laurent on their wedding night. The couple then begins to unravel — emotionally and physically. It’s here that Madame Raquin starts to gain heavy sympathy. Lange plays a grieving mother, going from agonized to helpless, so poignantly that your heart breaks for her.
At this point, the story becomes utterly unrelenting. Shirley Henderson, as Suzanne, a part of Madame Raquin’s social bunch, serves as the only steady comic relief. She is a constant snoop who is easily flustered, especially when the conversation turns to detailing the atmosphere inside a morgue.
This being his first feature film following directing for theater and television, writer and director Charlie Stratton successfully paints a forlorn picture with his fluid use of muted color, from the dismal wardrobe to the set design to the lighting. The look grows effectively drearier as the despair of the couple’s torment sets in.
However, we do benefit from a few contrasting scenes, like the inclusion of landscapes (shot in Hungary and Serbia) and moments of intense lovemaking between Therese and Laurent, which appear warm and intimate due to extreme close-ups and amber hues offering the illusion of candlelight.
Unfortunately, the final act of the film seems to drag on. Therese and Laurent are caught in a tedious state of misery. While Zola’s prose keeps us engaged in her couple’s steady spiral downward, the film’s conclusion could have come much sooner.
“In Secret,” a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sexual content and brief violent images.” Running time: 107 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.