Often when watching yet another period drama, it feels like it comes down to an exercise in sets and costumes more than anything else. I begin to wonder if maybe I’m just unfairly biased against the whole genre. And then comes a film like In Secret — based on Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin — and reminds me that yes, histrionics and art design can serve an actual story that’s fun to watch.
Thérèse starts off as so many protagonists of 19th century novels do: abandoned by her parents to an unfamiliar home, in this case that of her aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), and her cousin, Camille (Tom Felton), in rural France. Camille and Thérèse grow up together, he into a sickly young man without even the usual compensatory bookishness, and she into a sexually curious — and sexually frustrated — young woman. When they come of age, Thérèse is married to Camille, and the family moves to Paris for him to take a position as a clerk while Thérèse and Mme. Raquin open a sewing shop on a dark alley below their apartments.
And then one night Camille brings home an old acquaintance who just happens to be a clerk in the same office. Laurent LeClaire (Oscar Isaac) is everything Thérèse has been looking for: tall, strong, handsome, artistic, and a passionate lover. But of course she’s already married to a milksop, so they carry on their affair in secret until they can’t stand being apart any longer. The obstacle must be removed, and accidents happen every day, don’t they? It would just take a simple boating mishap and they can be together. But the two lovers soon find that it may not be quite as simple as they think.
Novice writer/director Charlie Stratton does an admirable job of adapting Neal Bell’s stage version of Zola’s novel. Engaging in both halves, the film turns around Camille’s death, which upends everyone’s lives as surely as the rented skiff where it takes place. A passionate love story at the start, it swiftly pivots into a taut, paranoid thriller while deftly uncovering nuances and revelations about love’s many impostors.
In a nice surprise for this sort of film, Olsen and Isaac have actual chemistry. Their love scenes feel as intense as their later fights; Olsen in particular shows real longing before, and palpable relief after she finally finds a partner who can meet her needs. And Lange’s recent run on _American Horror Story_ serves her well when the tension ratchets up.
With the help of cinematograher Florian Hoffmeister, Stratton shoots a beautiful picture. Not only do the sets — modern Belgrade and Budapest standing in for Second Empire France — and costumes catch the eye, but so many shots catch the many period objects arranged as if in a still life. As has become fashionable, Stratton uses some moving handheld shots, but with tactful restraint, and only for effect when the action calls for it.
Is In Secret overwrought? sure; show me a recent movie set in the middle of the 19th century that isn’t. But it’s not just pretty pictures and the vapours; there’s a real, engaging story here under all the fabric and grime. It really is possible to make an interesting period picture, after all.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.