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updated: 2/20/2014 1:49 PM

Nuanced performances flounder in familiar 'In Secret'

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  • Hunky Laurent LeClaire (Oscar Isaac) and the married Therese Raquin (Elizabeth Olsen) engage in some fatal hanky-panky in Charlie Stratton's "In Secret."

    Hunky Laurent LeClaire (Oscar Isaac) and the married Therese Raquin (Elizabeth Olsen) engage in some fatal hanky-panky in Charlie Stratton's "In Secret."

  • Video: "In Secret" trailer


It's "Double Indemity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Body Heat" all wrapped-up in an Oliver-twisted French setting.

Actually, Charlie Stratton's guilt-saturated tale of illicit love "In Secret" comes from Emile Zola's once randy and shocking 1867 novel of betrayal, murder and lust. "Therese Raquin."

By now, of course, unhappy wives plotting to knock off their insufficient hubbies for profit or romantic upgrades (or both) has become a stock commodity in film noir circles.

Here, Stratton's exquisitely textured period piece reprises that familiar plot with a worthy cast, but also with a disappointing display of dispassion and an ending that, however fittingly moral, drags with degrees of dramatic deficiency.

Elizabeth Olsen supplies plenty of pent-up sexual yearning as Therese, who as a youngster gets dumped on the doorstep of her wily aunt Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) and her wheezing, coughing, sneezing, cadaverously sick son Camille (played as an adult by "Harry Potter" star Tom Felton).

When Therese grows up to be of a certain age, Madame Raquin announces her impending nuptials -- to Camille, with whom Therese has been platonically sleeping because their country house only has one bed for both.

In Olsen's face, a deep and constantly moving pool of colliding emotions, we see the romantic dreams of a young girl instantly die. She is, she realizes, a female in the 1860s France, and her options are severely limited.

Once the family moves to the big city of Paris, Therese goes about her unfulfilled life of matrimonial servitude until one day, her options open up.

This option goes by the name of Laurent, a handsome gentleman crackling with sexual electricity as played by "Inside Llewyn Davis" star Oscar Issac. They communicate their growing passion in a series of awkward glances and invitations by hungry eyes.

When Laurent finally makes his move on Therese -- in the office below where her aunt and cousin/husband live -- her expected protest comes out as a plea: "Not here!"

It hardly ruins any surprise (unless you've never seen any of the movies listed at the start of this review) to know that innocent Camille barely survives to the movie's midpoint.

We don't see the "accident" aboard the small boat that Camille, Laurent and Therese use for some sightseeing.

We see that Laurent has suffered a deep cut on his neck, and much later in the story, the resulting scar practically glows red with guilt over what he has done, setting up the story's old-fashioned examination of guilt's all-consuming corrosive nature.

"In Secret" offers a generous supply of stolen moments and impromptu couplings imaginatively choreographed by secret lovers on the fly.

Yet, despite nuanced performances by Olsen and Issac, Stratton's relatively genteel direction tastefully traces their racy relationship, which lacks the raw, animal attraction of Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in "Body Heat" or the hot verbal foreplay of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity."

Olsen, Isaac and Felton form a formidable trio in this film, but the performance above all belongs to Lange as the manipulative matriarch, given a wide range of emotions to cover, including grief, despair, strength and fortitude.

Ever since the FX series "American Horror Story" jump-started her career, Lange has channeled her inner Mommie Dearest into fearless, fascinating females.

Everything about "In Secret" from its unHollywood ending to its literary source material screams "art movie" of the sort that normally would open at Chicago's Music Box or Century Centre theaters, then expand to the suburbs if box office receipts mandate it.

We'll see Monday if Roadside Attractions made the best call by not waiting.

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