The struggles of oppressive marriage

The struggles of oppressive marriage

You would be hard pressed to know from the misguided title and the odd assortment of American and British actors that ‘In Secret’ is the fifteenth adaptation of Emile Zola’s controversial 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin.  But in fairness, only three of those adaptations – none of them English language – were made for cinema; and five minutes into Charlie Stratton’s atmospheric psychological thriller the cast astound us by morphing into members of the petite bourgeoisie under the Second Empire.

In Secret may be too familiar a story to excite audiences, it is given a particularly tragic and nuanced interpretation and features a terrific performance from 65-year-old Academy Award winner Jessica Lange.

Thérèse, a young orphan brought up by her aunt, Madame Raquin (Lange), is made to marry her needy, consumptive cousin, Camille (Tom Felton) when they come of age and move from the provinces to Paris.  Camille will work while Madame Raquin and Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen) run a fabric shop below their flat.  Needless to say, the marriage is a disaster in all respects although the adaptable Thérèse proves to be an asset in the shop and Madame Raquin’s attitude towards her softens.  But Thérèse is a beautiful young woman who has repressed her sexual desires, while Camille has been so spoilt by his mother that he is incapable of thinking of anyone but himself.

One night, Camille brings a colleague home from work and the family will never be the same again. Laurent (Oscar Issac) is handsome, manly, charming and artistic – everything that Camille is not. Before long he and Thérèse are carrying on a passionate affair in her room.  In one scene, when Madame Raquin insists on bringing Thérèse tea for her alleged headaches, Laurent hides under her wide skirts (thank god for the fashion). When Camille and Madame Raquin decide to return to the country, the inseparable couple turns to desperate measures for their only chance at happiness.

Who would have thought that, cast against type in every respect, British comic actors Matt Lucas, Shirley Henderson, Mackenzie Crook and John Kavanagh (as Inspector Michaud) would be so good as the petite bourgeois chorus of friends of the Raquins.  Eight months after Camille’s accident, they come together to suggest to Madame Raquin that poor, inconsolable Thérèse needs a new husband.  When Madame Raquin approves of Laurent, everyone is sure that this arranged marriage will be a happy one.

The novel is full of references to prisons, chains and tombs and Stratton, with his capable team of production and set designers, costume and make-up artists, do an excellent job of expressing the claustrophobic, dingy and gloomy atmosphere of the 1860 interiors.  The ever-dusty shop on a narrow street has never seen the daylight, and the upstairs rooms are oppressive: small, plain and decorated in browns and grays.

Stratton, who wrote the script, works at balancing and then upsetting our emotions and the sides we take. Of course we feel that Thérèse has earned some happiness, but once the lovers are together, they are no longer innocent victims of fate. A criticism could be leveled that the breakdown of their passion happens so quickly that we do not know whether it is due to guilt alone, or the fact they never really loved one another.

What makes Zola’s Thérèse Raquin so satisfactory is that it is the couple themselves and not outside forces that mete out the justice. And it is not the evil in them, but the vestiges of conscience and morality that dictate their fate.   That, and a mother so protective of her son to the last, that, even after a paralyzing stroke, even when her pinched and twisted face and the alarm and anguish in her eyes cannot communicate with her friends, her shriveled fingers succeed.

Kate Winslett was originally attached and, as great an actress as she is, she would have been too old for the part.  Olsen and Issac, two rising stars whom the producers were lucky to get just before they became too expensive, make a convincingly obsessed pair of lovers, while Felton is perfectly cast. But (after Glen Close proved unavailable), this is Lange’s film. Though the part is melodramatic, her performance as a doting mother whose unhealthy love for her son makes her a force to be reckoned with, shows what a film can gain when an older actress is given a meaty role.

Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer