A would-be historical epic, the awkwardly lurching, occasionally effective “Secret Passage” falls short. Centering on a family of Jewish women attempting to survive after their expulsion from Spain, expensive-looking pic reps a handsome vehicle for leads Tara Fitzgerald, John Turturro and Katherine Borowitz. It’s also a step up in budget for talented Bosnian helmer Ademir Kenovic after his “Perfect Circle” success. But elements never quite gel for this guilt-edged costumer, which has knocked around in different versions for several years now. “Passage” might not be so secret if more footage was added and it was sold as a tube miniseries.
Mousy Clara (Fitzgerald, taking a break from her assertive bohemians) is dominated by her sister Isabel (Borowitz), who has completely taken over the clan since their wealthy parents died fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. That includes making all decisions for Clara’s teenage daughter, Victoria (England’s Hannah Taylor-Gordon, who recently played Anne Frank on TV). The girl becomes crucial in their gambits as family resettles from Portugal to Italy, on a long-term trajectory to Istanbul, where Jews are allowed to have fuller lives.
The city-state of Venice turns out to be a mixed bag for them: As conversos Jews now practicing Catholicism, they aren’t forced to live in the crumbling ghetto, but several not-so-noble men are trying to latch onto their still-considerable family fortune.
It’s hard to read the real intentions of a local bigwig (Turturro, doing his best Brit accent), who seems to take a genuine shine to Clara and even proposes betrothing his young son to the shy Victoria.
Isabel wants to steal the secrets of Venetian glass blowing and market them to the Turks — a crime punishable by gruesome drowning in the canals. Sibling rivalries intrude viciously on everyone’s plans, and the multiple betrayals here challenge auds to root for anyone by the end.
Kenovic and lenser Vilko Filac make deluxe use of varied locations (Portugal, Italy, and Luxembourg) and the leads all get plenty to do. It’s particular fun to see Turturro and Borowitz, married in real life, sparring in their few scenes together. But the supporting characters are indistinct, as is the historical context. The plot sometimes jumps ahead haphazardly, at other times resting too long on already covered ground.
Anglo dialogue, whipped up by a multi-lingo team, is often painfully on the nose. (“It’s always difficult escaping the past,” someone actually utters.) And thesps occasionally appear fatigued by weight of endless exposition.