One of the least pleasant activities any human can experience is the drudgery of reading Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. Zola’s exploration of naturalism—a bleak worldview wherein characters are placed in realistic situations and play out parts dictated more by their social environment than anything else—is grim. 

It's also crap. There isn't a more writerly device than to inject characters into a plot and then have them react in the way they've been designed. And Thérèse Raquin is so dreary and desolate it's hard to imagine any filmmaker wanting to take it on. But it has been, often. In Secret is just the latest version (Neal Bell's play is also listed as source material). On screen, it's far more captivating than on the page. The miserable haberdashery where Thérèse works with her aunt/mother-in-law seems appropriately dingy, and her husband/first cousin Camille is duly sickly, weak and irritating.

Maybe In Secret works because Thérèse is played by Elizabeth Olsen (the talented Olsen sibling). She's aided by Jessica Lange as her aunt, Madame Raquin, Tom Felton as Camille, and Oscar Isaac as Laurent, the man who becomes Thérèse's lover and co-conspirator.

Plot-wise, In Secret sticks closely to its source text. Thérèse is left as a child with her aunt and the aunt's sickly son, Camille. Thérèse is made to marry Camille, whom she loathes. Madame Raquin, Camille and Thérèse relocate to Paris so Camille can work in an office. Eventually Camille runs into his childhood friend Laurent and brings him around for dominoes, and Thérèse and Laurent begin a torrid affair. Thérèse and Laurent kill Camille and—once their guilt and mistrust gets the better of them—try to kill each other.

It's just the sort of things that makes a good murder story (a pity it doesn't work in the novel). Olsen uses her big eyes well, conveying Thérèse's inner torment with a slow burn until her eyes seem ready to burst from her head. She even delivers some pretty outrageous dialogue with a straight face and sells it. Take this line she utters to Laurent: "Now there's nothing left of me but burned wick and wisp of smoke." Isaac, for all his promise in Drive and Inside Llewyn Davis, doesn't come off as well, but that's because Laurent exists solely as a dramatic device in which Thérèse may effectively turn to the dark side.

Lange is excellent. She uses a steely gaze that makes even Madame Raquin's most innocuous movements sinister. Better yet is the way she tosses out perfectly awful statements about Thérèse's place in their family.

Eventually, In Secret slows to a crawl. After Thérèse and Laurent drown Camille—off camera but there are fleeting, horrible glimpses in flashback—they sink into a passionless marriage that’s been destroyed by memories of their crime. The deliberate pace in the book is torture; on screen it makes sense. All of the characters are trapped in a wretched existence that makes each day feel like a month. And the ending is inevitable, but only because it’s written that way.


Directed by Charlie Stratton
With Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Lange
UA DeVargas 6
107 min.