The trickiest part of making a period film isn't all those fancy clothes or weird wigs. It's finding the right performers who can create the illusion of timelessness. Not every performer exudes the kind of qualities needed to make their character come across as being believable for the time period.
Actors like Keira Knightley, Colin Farrell and Jane Seymour have such a quality. Elizabeth Olsen, star of "In Secret," does not.
Olsen has shown she is a good actor, but the works where she has shined have been more contemporary films such as "Martha Marcy May Marlene" or "Silent House." "In Secret" is set in 1860s Paris, and Olsen's look is so contemporary that it makes the film comes across more like a good community theater production of Émile Zola's scandalous novel than a feature film.
Olsen plays Therese Raquin, a woman with more sexual repression than a convent full of nuns. After being forced by her domineering aunt, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange), into a loveless marriage with her sickly cousin, Camille (Tom Felton), Therese lives a life of misery. Her days are divided between working in a small shop and watching family and friends playing dominoes.
When her husband's childhood friend, Laurent (Oscar Isaac), shows up, Therese's pent-up sexual energy explodes. They launch into an ill-fated affair that leads to a life-changing decision by the pair.
Director Charlie Stratton's screenplay reflects the scandalous elements of Zola's original work. The message about the often treacherous path taken because of lust plays out in grand moralistic fashion. Unlike a modern screenplay about infidelity, where the consequences are often blunted, Zola's work embraces the cold and fatalistic view of such improprieties.
It's just the delivery of the elements that fails.
The fact that Olsen doesn't look right in the period film isn't the only problem. Olsen also never sells the passion of her affair. She almost looks bored in scenes with her lover.
Part of the blame goes to Stratton, who shows his limited experience as a director by not getting a more convincing performance out of an actress who has shown she has skills.
All of the failings by Olsen are sad because Felton, Isaac and even Lange look like they belong in the time period and play their roles with great passion. Lange is particularly powerful, both as the manipulative matriarch and later as a woman who has lost complete control of her life.
"In Secret" has its strengths from a serviceable direction by Stratton and solid performance by Lange. It's just missing that timeless element from the lead actress that transports the viewer through the ages.
"In Secret," rated R for sexual content, brief violence. Stars Elizabeth Olsen, Jessica Lange, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton. Directed by Charlie Stratton. Running time: 109 minutes. Grade: C-
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.