Serviceable but uninspired, this latest version of Emile Zola’s much-adapted 1867 novel “Therese Raquin” sends its characters to their doom on schedule without stirring much sense of tragedy or emotional involvement. Admittedly, the author called his own scheming-lover characters “brutes,” but writer-director Charlie Stratton hasn’t made them compelling enough anywhere on the scale from likability to villainy, and Elizabeth Olsen’s turn in the title role reps a speed bump in her rise to stardom. Already sold to numerous territories, this otherwise well-cast picture will find a berth in most markets friendly toward classic-lit costume dramas, but is unlikely to win more than middling arthouse B.O.
Her mother unknown, little Therese is dumped as a child by her seafaring father on the rural doorstep of his only living relative, a sister. The widowed Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) endlessly dotes on her sickly son — with whom the new arrival must share a bed — yet is markedly cooler toward Therese, who is treated just slightly better than a servant and expected to be grateful for it. Upon reaching adulthood, frail Camille (Tom Felton) announces he’s landed a job in Paris, while Madame announces his marriage to dismayed Therese, who has little choice in the matter, her father having meanwhile died in a shipwreck.
The trio move to a Paree far less “gay” than dreary and dirty (perhaps abetted by the pic’s having actually been shot in Serbia and Hungary). There, Camille slaves at his clerkship while Therese, no happier a wife than expected, assists in Madame’s fabric store. Camille is thrilled to discover that a onetime hometown playmate works at the same firm; strapping, swarthy Laurent (Oscar Isaac) is in turn thrilled to find this milquetoast has a pretty wife who blushes crimson at the least off-color remark.
Soon Laurent and Therese are trysting secretly, frequently and far more graphically than Zola ever detailed. It dawns that they can only truly, openly be together if Camille were to suffer a fatal “accident.” This is duly arranged in due course. But even after Madame gives her consent for widowed Therese to marry the obvious replacement choice — Laurent, who’s carefully played the part of devoted, selfless family friend — the conspirators find no peace. They never imagined the extent to which tormenting guilt might poison the love they risked so much for. Zola’s clever plot mechanics drum up some suspense in the late going, as Madame Raquin, having lost powers of speech and movement from a hysterical-grief-triggered stroke, struggles to communicate the ugly truth she uncovers about her son’s death.
Felton and Isaac do good work, while Lange (who also starred in another so-so 19th century French lit adaptation, 1998’s “Cousin Bette”) relishes what becomes the most dramatically potent role, at least in this incarnation. Shirley Henderson provides some muted comic spark as a nosy member of the family’s dismal Paris social circle. Wide-eyed Olsen, however, strikes a petulant note too early to draw us into Therese’s plight, making for a central figure that never really centers the film. It’s not a bad performance, just not an interesting or involving one.
Making his first theatrical feature after stage and TV work, Stratton does a competent job, but fails to lend the pic any strong personal, stylistic or atmospheric stamp beyond the gloom induced by so many scenes set in dank, underlit rooms. Tech/design contributions are pro.