Emile Zola’s 1867 novel “Therese Raquin” has been filmed many times, though never before, it seems, in English (apart from a British mini-series). It’s a rather lurid tale that brings together what became two staples of storytelling in the Romantic era—an unhappily married woman who takes a self-destructive path, and the wages of crime. Therese (Elizabeth Olsen) is deposited by her father with his sister (Jessica Lange) and her sickly son Camille (Tom Felton) in rural France before taking off to sea again. After her brother’s death Madame Raquin marries Therese off to Camille to serve as his caretaker-for-life, and the three decamp to Paris, where Camille gets a clerking job and the two women open a small fabric shop, over which the family lives.
Therese is clearly miserable chained to her drearily cadaverous husband, and is not particularly happy when Camille brings home from work one night an old childhood chum, Laurent (Oscar Isaac). Over games of dominoes with friends—police official Michaud (John Kavanaugh), his policeman son Olivier (Matt Lucas) and his nervous wife (Shirley Henderson), and colorless Grivet (Mackenzie Crook)—feelings between her and Laurent emerge, and before long they’re engaged in a torrid affair. Eventually they decide to kill Camille so they can be together, and accomplish the deed by drowning him during a quiet excursion down the river.
Not long after Therese and Laurent marry, but a chain remains: all the family money and property is in Madame Raquin’s name, and after she suffers a debilitating stroke, they must serve as her caretaker. Matters turn even worse when she learns that they murdered her son and strains against her infirmity to inform others of the crime, while they grow ever more guilt-ridden and frustrated with their lot—and each other. In the end, of course, retribution must fall upon them.
In 1867 this was a shocking tale, and while in our less delicate age it hardly carries the same punch, it’s still insightful in its depiction of the unhappy condition of a woman—particularly an illegitimate one—in nineteenth-century society. Writer-director Charlie Stratton treats it with a fair degree of fidelity to the source, though his handling of the bedroom montages between Therese and Laurent have too much the air of glossily discreet magazine spreads and a sequence in which Laurent hides beneath Therese’s billowing skirt and shows his affection when Madame Raquin interrupts one of their trysts comes across as strained and silly. With cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister Stratton favors dark, color-drained visuals that express an appropriately gloomy atmospheric but do grow a mite tiresome. (The drowning scene, when we eventually see it, is evocative.) The period trappings are nicely realized by the crafts crew—production designer Uli Hanish, art director Kai Karla Koch, set decorator Michael Fechner and costume designer Pierre Yves-Gayraud—while Gabriel Yared’s score is moodily unobtrusive.
Among the cast, Lange certainly stands out as Madame Raquin—it’s a showy, calculated performance, but one that undoubtedly grabs your attention and holds onto it. Felton makes a convincing milquetoast, and Isaac—hardly recognizable as the same fellow who played Llewyn Davis—makes a handsome conniver. The weak link, unfortunately, is Olsen, who comes across rather like a resurrected Jennifer Jones in one of her rather blank, wide-eyed turns. In support Henderson brings some much-needed humor, while Lucas does likewise as her chauvinistic, dense husband.
In sum, Stratton’s effort makes for a respectable, though hardly entrancing, adaptation of Zola’s once-notorious novel, though there’s a whiff of minor Masterpiece Theatre about it. Perhaps, though, the book is nowadays better served by operatic treatment—which it’s now received twice, once from English composer Michael Finnissy (1992) and again from the American Tobias Picker (1999). Both operas, of course, are called “Therese Raquin,” which incidentally was originally this film’s title until it was changed to the bland, nondescript one under which it’s being marketed—probably the work of some misguided marketing guru.