“Secret In Their Eyes” is based on “El secreto de sus ojos,” the film from Argentina that picked up the Oscar for best foreign film in 2010. Director/writer Billy Ray uses only the bare bones of the original movie to craft his tale of motherly love, heartbreak and obsession.
It’s rare that an adaptation of a much heralded film equals the original. In this case, the upgrades add to the tension and tenure of the production. His changes also make the film far more relatable.
The biggest change is with the central figure of Jess (Julia Roberts), a Los Angeles detective. She and her partner, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are called out on what they think is a routine homicide. What they find is that Jess’ daughter is the victim.
The director tells the story by bouncing between the events as they originally unfold 13 years ago and the renewed effort to solve the case in present day. The present-day Jess is an emotional wreck described as “looking a million years old.” Ray is now working private security, but he has spent the past 13 years looking for clues to find the chief suspect.
The third part of the puzzle is Claire (Nicole Kidman), an ambitious member of the district attorney’s office who has more than a professional interest in the case.
“Secret In Their Eyes” is basically a three-person play with Ejiofor serving as the major link. Because all three performers are so good, the emotional tension never waivers no matter the configuration.
Both Roberts and Ejiofor turn in Oscar-worthy performances. Roberts has built a career playing superficial characters, but in this role she is forced into dark corners of her soul. She responds perfectly – even her body language changes between the character’s life before and after the murder.
Equally strong is Ejiofor. One of the best tests of an actor’s ability is to put him or her in a scene where there is no dialogue. There are no fancy words to sway the audience. It all comes down to how much emotion is revealed in the silence. The scene where the actor discovers the identity of the murder victim is the kind of moment that sets the bar for excellence. It is a magical scene that establishes the tone for the entire movie.
All of the actors turn in amazing work. The only flaw is that the writer/director missed with his ending. There are two ways the story could conclude and each one has a major flaw. It’s impossible to talk about the ending without giving away critical plot points, just know that the final act is not even close to being as well written as the rest of the production.
A flawed ending can be forgiven because the journey there is so masterfully crafted. Roberts shows that she can handle even the most emotionally gut-wrenching roles with the same ease that she does a romantic comedy. Ejiofor is equally adept, while Kidman completes this acting triumvirate with a solid performance.
The director could have lost control of the film in bouncing through time, but he maintains a firm control and gets everything out of the players and story possible. The only blemish is the ending.
In all, this adaptation of the Oscar-winning movie shows that improvements can be made even with a product that is already first-rate.