The worst sin of “The Secrets We Keep” is not that it so blatantly and flagrantly rips off Ariel Dorfman’s play and subsequent movie “Death and the Maiden” — although if the Chilean author wanted to sue for a credit, he’s certainly got a case.
The history of art is the history of creators borrowing from each other, whether they call it homage or reference or appropriation. What grates about director Yuval Adler and his co-writer Ryan Covington pilfering so obviously from Dorfman’s work is that they haven’t done anything particularly interesting with it.
Is there potential in changing the setting of “Death and the Maiden” from an unnamed Latin American country to the USA of the 1950s, still reeling in various ways from World War II? Absolutely. Do Adler and Covington achieve that potential? Not in the slightest.
Noomi Rapace stars as Maja, trying her best to live the American Dream as a mother of a young son and wife to Lewis (Chris Messina), whom she married in Europe when he served with the medical corps in 1946, after the end of fighting. Rather than present Maja as a paragon of Better Homes and Garden living who snaps, Rapace makes her dark and brooding from the get-go, constantly smoking and peering out at the world behind sunglasses. (She resembles an amalgam of various Helena Bonham-Carter characters in the Tim Burton universe.)
While in the park with her son one day, she hears a man whistle for his dog, and she feels that whistle in her spine. After following the man (Joel Kinnaman) home, she becomes convinced that he is the Nazi officer who raped her and murdered her sister during the war. So convinced, in fact, that she kidnaps him and — after failing to summon the nerve to shoot him and bury him in a shallow grave — she brings him to her basement to torture him and to force him to admit his crimes, even though he insists he’s innocent and that he sat out the war in Switzerland.
“The Secrets We Keep” takes a stab at some new plot ideas; in explaining to Lewis what’s happening, Maja reveals to him for the first time her Roma background, and Maja investigates the man’s past by befriending his distraught wife (Amy Seimetz) under the guise of being neighborly. But neither of these threads leads anywhere particularly interesting.
It doesn’t help that “Secrets” shares one of the main flaws of Roman Polanski’s screen version of “Death and the Maiden”; in both cases, the director has cast actresses with an action background, presumably to make sure they could handle the intense physicality of the role, but both actresses have created such indelible heroes — “Death and the Maiden” star Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Rapace’s Lisabeth Salander — that it’s hard for audiences to doubt the character’s sanity. Without that doubt, drama is replaced by a simple countdown to the finale, with any question of justification or morality falling by the wayside.
Kinnaman, never the most dynamic of actors, isn’t able to make much of a role that forces him to be bound and gagged for much of the running time, so it’s up to Messina (bringing active energy to a passive character) and Seimetz to provide any sense of depth or humanity. Equally credible is the production design and the costumes by Christina Flannery (“Semper Fi”), which capture an Eisenhower-era refinery town without going overboard on mid-century pizzazz. German cinematographer Kolja Brandt also strikes the right balance of dusty dreariness that never becomes excessively stark.
There’s an interesting story to be told here — indeed, it already has been — but almost nothing about “The Secrets We Keep” sticks in the memory.