Remember when the selling point of the “John Carter” movie was that the original novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs had inspired “Star Wars” and “Superman”? And then the movie came out and most people felt like they were sitting through a warmed-over rehash of “Star Wars” and “Superman”?
When a work has inspired many copycats, it’s difficult to rediscover how groundbreaking the original once was. And that’s certainly one of the major problems with “In Secret,” a dispassionate adaptation of Émile Zola’s “Thérèse Raquin,” a novel that shocked audiences in 1867 with its tale of lust and murder, but now that its let’s-kill-my-husband plot has been redone in countless noir films, what was once fresh now plays very stale indeed.
Elizabeth Olsen stars as Thérèse who, as an illegitimate child, was left by her father to be raised by her aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), who makes the young girl share a bed with Madame’s sickly but doted-upon son Camille. As the cousins come of age, Cami (Tom Felton, the artist formerly known as Draco Malfoy) keeps coughing but Thérèse feels the fires of passion inside her, which first-time writer-director Charlie Stratton demonstrates by having Olsen dry-hump the ground while watching a shirtless farmer sensuously scything his crops.
Madame announces that Cami and Thérèse will be married, and that they’re moving to Paris, where the women will run a shop while Cami goes to work in an office. It’s at that office where Cami reunites with childhood friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”), whose bohemian hedonism at first repels Thérèse, although it’s not long before she’s lifting her many petticoats for him.
Adultery, murder and guilt follow, and the “Double Indemnity” of it all would be more rousing if Stratton, adapting Neal Bell’s stage version of the Zola novel, had any kind of angle or perspective to bring to the material. He’s far more interested in leaving Zola in mothballs, and his turgid fidelity to the material renders it inconsequential.
Isaac at least has some fun playing smoldering and louche, but Olsen, based on her handful of screen appearances, seems to be more successful playing characters who are hiding something as opposed to firebrands like Thérèse whose feelings are right there on the surface.
Lange finds an emotional connection to the material, but her face is so very, shall we say, 21st century, that it’s a constant distraction in this period piece, like a wristwatch worn with a toga in a Roman epic.
English-language films based on French literature have been something of a grind of late, from Christopher Hampton’s sluggish Colette adaptation “Chéri” to the monstrous “Les Misérables” musical. “In Secret” proves to be more of la même chose.