In Secret

Posted by Michael Parsons on February 21, 2014 in / No Comments


“In Secret” is a movie that gets significantly better as it moves along, making a rather unexpected recovery from a mundane first half that looks and feels like it was pulled straight from the pages of a Harlequin Romance novel.

Shifting from a sappy, almost unforgivably clichéd period piece into something that might resemble a mash-up of “War of the Roses”, an Edgar Allan Poe tale and one particularly well-known Shakespeare tragedy, writer/director Charlie Stratton’s feature debut, which is based on the 1867 book “Thérèse Raquin” by French author Émile Zola, becomes an interesting psychological thriller once the narrative makes its abrupt about-face. Where the film catches us a bit off-guard is not with some brilliant twist 112496_gal(the biggest plot points can be gathered from the trailer, and they’re rather obvious anyway), but with its palpable change in mood and atmosphere. The setting, which is 1860’s Paris most of the time, turns from drab to haunting, and some subtle, easy-to-miss dark humor suggests that the film might be more aware of itself than we initially thought.

To some audience members, this may not be a sufficient enough payoff for slogging through the first half-hour or so, in which beautiful young Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen, “Oldboy”) endures the reign of her domineering aunt (Jessica Lange) and a tepid arranged marriage to her sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton of the “Harry Potter” series). She begins an affair with Camille’s childhood friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”), a self-assured artist who immediately picks up on Thérèse’s sexual repression. This aspect of the film goes through the motions, so to speak, as it focuses on Olsen and Isaac’s unbridled passion for one another, and looks to be just another mediocre romantic melodrama (those who are going to see the BRAY_20120605_TR_2395.CR2film based on it being advertised as an “erotic” thriller will be able to skip the cold shower).

Very suddenly, though, we find ourselves watching a different kind of movie. It becomes clear that we aren’t supposed to be pulling for this secret romance, as their better sense succumbs to animalistic urge, and all bets are off. Staging a boat accident, Thérèse and Laurent do away with her husband in order to be together forever, and no sooner is the body discovered than the couple begin to develop an aversion to one another.

The talented cast provides some moments of brilliance, particularly between Olsen and Lange (the former continues to emerge as a versatile actress while the latter delivers yet another emotionally exhausting performance as a grief-stricken mother), though the film as a whole doesn’t live up to their standards. Olsen’s unraveling is quite a thing to watch (see also “Martha Marcy May Marlene”). Oscar Isaac achieves a delicate balance between love-struck and sinister (the polar opposite of last year’s Llewyn Davis), and in a scene or two shows that he has a knack for pitch black comedy, which one may only be able to discern by the expressions on his face.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about “In Secret” is how dramatically our sympathy oscillates between the characters. Ultimately, some clever writing, competent directing and efficient editing make this film a nice little surprise.

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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