One day soon, the narrative throughout the media will coalesce around our first impressions of Elizabeth Olsen. We will attempt to write about her, as if in hushed whispers, full of awe. “Do you remember seeing her in Martha Marcy May Marlene?” we will ask our readers, prodding them to recall that this was the moment when we started the buzz about her. We will be patting ourselves on the back a bit, but why wouldn’t we, because she is poised, without a doubt, for the kind of career that will demand such retrospectives.
Yet outside that auspicious debut, she hasn’t exactly had a breakout of the magnitude of, say, Jennifer Lawrence, another young actress who burst forth in a blaze from the indie ranks (Winter’s Bone, alongside journeyman character actor John Hawkes), but then began an onscreen assault of stunning diversity — Academy Award-winning work in Silver Linings Playbook, while making her presence felt at the box office in X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games franchise — that defines the modern pathway to success.
To be fair, Olsen is proving to be a quick study. She has maintained a foothold in the art house world, albeit in the little-seen Spike Lee remake of Oldboy, and insinuated herself into the blockbuster scene with an upcoming double feature — Godzilla in 2014 and Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015. In each case, there is far less pressure on Olsen to take over either of these movies; she can simply lay back in the cut and let the adrenalized action sequences intoxicate audiences repeatedly. She will be recognized as part of the success team, but won’t shoulder any overwhelming responsibility if either falters.
In the meantime, Olsen settles into writer-director Charlie Stratton’s period piece In Secret, based on a play by Neal Bell, about Thérèse Raquin (Olsen), a young girl left in the care of her aunt Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) and her sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton).
Set in and around Paris in the 1860s, this is a time when a young woman without the means to support herself was at the mercy of her situation, and for Thérèse that means a domineering aunt with no consideration for anyone besides her feckless son. Thérèse ends up commissioned to serve as Camille’s “guardian angel,” which means she is little more than his full-time nurse and eventual wife.
But Thérèse is alive to the possibility of life and its attending sensations. She sniffs out the sensuality and vitality around her. Olsen captures this awakening in much the same way she did in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Early on, Thérèse confronts Camille, desirous of her first real kiss, a taste of the flame flickering before her, but he fails to understand or appreciate the opportunity staring him in the face. Camille, while sickly and oppressed by his overbearing mother, has an innocence and naiveté about him that frustrates her, yet should not lead to ill will.
The situation changes, though, when Laurent LeClaire (Oscar Isaac) enters the scene. Laurent, an old acquaintance of the Raquins before Thérèse’s arrival, upsets the staid conventions of the family — the game nights with close associates, the monotonous days Thérèse spends working alongside Madame Raquin in their dress shop, Camille’s work days in the office before coming home to share a sexless bed with Thérèse — with his tales of seducing nude models to give him the inspiration he needs to create vivid paintings. Suddenly, Laurent gets Thérèse in touch with the long-dormant private parts of herself — her curiosity, her daringness and a willingness to take risks.
The greatest risk is to seize control of one’s fate. In French society during this period, the only way to do so would be to set oneself on a secretive course. Divorce is not an option when faced with a loveless marriage. So Thérèse and Laurent embark on a perilous scheme to kill Camille to allow their love the opportunity to live, but that sets up another even more costly and destructive series of actions that can only lead to ruin.
Stratton’s take is decidedly straightforward, although sneakily injected with low levels of Hitchcockian tension. The risks and rewards are obvious at every turn, but the secret element that holds it all together is Olsen. A timeless creature, she lives and breathes as Thérèse, granting us access to this character and these times like few could. The “secret” of Elizabeth Olsen is definitely out. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theater) (R) Grade: B-
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