Give a bunch of American actors — Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Lange — a classic Parisian text and they implausibly turn out their best British accents. There is something amiss with a period drama genre when getting the tones from the right side of the English Channel proves so difficult for actors who usually produce performances from a rare cloth. Yet someone obviously forgot to tell them that having a lady in a corset doesn’t always mean it’s an audition for “Downton Abbey.”
Olsen plays Therese with a face so sour they should name a whisky cocktail in her honor. She uses that expression to play a young woman who’s the last to know that her aunt (Lange) has arranged a marriage with her cousin Camille (Tom Felton). But it’s really the face of someone who must be wondering how her agent allowed her to take on such a role. Perhaps that’s why the result is so unadventurous. Although the movie draws from Émile Zola’s book “Thérèse Raquin,” which confronts issues of lust and sexual desire head-on, Olsen keeps her clothes on.
When Camille performs like a tree trunk in bed, the married Therese wonders where all the magic has gone. Felton plays Camille as a posh English aristocrat whose sexual desire and social mores obviously got hijacked while he was being bullied at his boy’s public school. Clearly his only chance with Therese comes from her aunt, Madame Raquin (Lange), making the arrangement.
What’s bizarre is that, upon finding out about the nuptials, Therese only has a wry smile and doesn’t run into the Seine, but everything becomes clear by looking at the background scenery: Even Inspector Clouseou would notice that it’s all filmed on a East European set. Not only are the accents wrong, the backdrop looks like it has been borrowed from Roman Polanki’s “Oliver Twist.”
Luckily for Therese, she’s rescued by the best designer stubble since George Michael left Wham: Laurent (Isaac) is a school friend of her husband employed by the family as a portrait-painter — his opportunism and cheesy pick-up lines match his eye for detail. In one of the script’s subtler moments, painter’s model Camille tells Laurent, “You must excuse my wife, she’s never seen a man before!”
In response, Laurent tells a story of how he painted a nude and touched her thigh with his brush. Austin Powers would like his best lines back, please. But by the end of this incredulous yarn, Laurent just tells Therese to undo her blouse. Laurent need not worry about the ensuing bad sex, because it’s a step up from no sex.
After the dynamic of the piece — which sees Therese running off for a bit of fun with Laurent whenever husband and mother are not looking — has been established, the triangle just keeps on being hit with a monotonous wand as the action repeats itself over the course of the first act.
The large part of the blame must be pointed at writer and director Charlie Stratton. It takes a special talent to turn the romantic lyricism of Zola and turn it into chick-lit. Stratton’s training as a director on “Revenge” for ABC and “Everywood” on WB is clearly first class if you want to write Mills and Boon romances, not so much if you’re looking to forge respect as a director.
Perhaps it’s the cursed source novel. Park Chan Wook didn’t exactly have his finest hour when he turned it into the vampire horror-drama “Thirst.” The best cinematic version came in 1953 when Marcel Carne directed Simone Signoret as Therese and reimagined Laurent as a Lyon truck driver. (It won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.) There has been no traditional movie adaptation since a silent 1928 German version, although there have been numerous made-for-TV accounts, most notably a BBC television serial starring a dandy cravat-wearing Alan Rickman, which had no problem with showing flesh.
The crucial scene has Camille and Laurent go boating. Stratton takes a leaf out of Knight and Day by arriving at the scene for the aftermath of the action. It wasn’t a good idea for the Tom Cruise action vehicle and it doesn’t get any better when done in period costume. Laurent and Therese are pulled out of the water screaming accident. Even Robert Downey Jr. in his darkest drug days would still have had the wherewithal to not need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out what went on. But like post-match sporting punditry, the scene is replayed as the protagonists recall the incident in their minds. Stratton approaches these scenes with all the poise of a fish out of water.
Criticwire grade: F
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Roadside Attractions picked up U.S. theatrical rights to “Therese” ahead of its Toronto premiere. While interest in the cast and source material may help it gain some attention, mixed word of mouth and low awareness of the novel stateside might make it a challenge for the movie to gain much of a profile.