Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Erik Howsam, Adam Riback, Greg Shapiro and Stuart Ford Director: Tuval Adler Screenplay: Ryan Covington and Yuval Adler Cast: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz, Jackson Vincent, Miluette Nalin, Madison Jones, Jeff Pope and Dave Maldonado Distributor: Bleecker Street
Ariel Dorfman’s name isn’t mentioned in the credits, but his 1990 play “Death and the Maiden” (and Roman Polanski’s 1994 adaptation of it, with a screenplay co-written by Dorfman) is the obvious inspiration for Yuval Adler’s Holocaust-themed thriller. Unfortunately “The Secrets We Keep” is inferior to both Dorfman’s original and Polanski’s filmization of it.
The setting has been changed from an unnamed South American country to the United States, and the time from “the present” (1990) to 1959 or 1960 (if a theatre marquee advertising Alfred Hichcock’s “North by Northwest” is to be considered a chronological signpost, though the title could be intended more as a reference to the film’s theme of mistaken identity).
The chief character is Maja (Noomi Rapace), a darkly beautiful Roma woman who met her husband Lewis (Chris Messina), a doctor, at a medical camp in Cyprus after the war’s end in Europe. In a small town in upstate New York dominated economically by a refinery, they work together in Lewis’ office and dote on their young son Patrick (Jackson Vincent).
Their idyllic home life is upset one afternoon when Maja sees a man (Joel Kinnaman) walking his dog on the sidewalk alongside the park where she and Patrick are literally blowing soap bubbles that prove as ephemeral as her easygoing happiness. Distractedly leaving her son, she follows the man at a distance, though she can go no further when he gets in a car and drives off. Some days later, however, she encounters him again at a hardware store and follows him to his house, where he lives with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and darling little daughter Annabel (Madison Jones).
Obviously Maja has suspicions about the man. She waylays him on his walk from work at the refinery, with the intention of killing him. Instead she deposits him—with considerable difficulty—in the trunk of her car, and takes him home. Lewis is astonished by what she’s done, but helps tie him up in their basement when she tells him a horror story about what she suffered in the last days of the war in Eastern Europe. She and a group of women from a concentration camp, including her sister, were attacked by a group of German soldiers, and her sister killed. She’s convinced that the man was one of the soldiers, a man called Karl.
The man, of course, denies the accusation. He claims to be a Swiss immigrant named Thomas, who played no role in the war. And Lewis is torn over what Maja has done. Shocked by the story she’s finally revealed to him about her experience before they met, he feels it incumbent to support her actions because of her certainty that the man is one of her sister’s killers. But he says that before they decide what to do, he has to be convinced of the man’s guilt. So Maja takes it upon herself to use all means to get him to confess, even as Lewis tries to investigate the man’s background and test his story.
In some ways the plot takes obvious thriller turns. Thomas—or is he Karl?—attempts to escape, and his cries are heard by a neighbor (Jeff Pope), who calls the police; a cop (Dave Maldonado) arrives to question Maya just as Lewis is grilling the man in the basement. The scene is intended to generate suspense, but it’s choreographed in such a pedestrian way that it doesn’t elicit much.
More unusual is a plot thread that finds Maja making friends with Rachel, ostensibly to commiserate with her over Thomas’ disappearance, but in reality to pump her for information about her husband’s past. Over time they become friends, and Patrick bonds with Annabel.
It’s an interesting twist in what is otherwise a fairly predictable—and repetitive—formula. And one might well be taken aback by the abrupt conclusion, which not only reveals the truth but ends in a way that’s meant both to surprise and disquiet, though it downplays the moral issues it raises.
Rapace brings a sense of simmering rage to the ever-smoking Maja, and Messina is persuasively bewildered as her husband, his owlish look emphasized by a pair of black-rimmed glasses. Kinnaman is naturally restricted by his character’s physical confinement, but tries to give the captive man some dimension, and Seimetz brings real pathos to his wife. The kids are both charming.
Production designer Nate Jones and costumer Christina Flannery have obviously devoted much attention to the period detail, though the world they’ve fashioned doesn’t really have a convincingly lived-in look, and cinematographer Kola Brandt gives the widescreen images lushness, though he can’t do much to make the dank basement scenes visually interesting. Richard Mettle’s editing can’t be called crisp, but the deliberate pacing reflects Adler’s ponderous approach; he does get to show some stylish flourish in the gray-toned flashbacks to Maya’s post-war tragedy that are periodically inserted into the contemporary action; John Pisano’s music underscores the grimness of the plot.
“The Secrets We Keep” holds some interest by reason of the Holocaust-related reworking of Dorfman’s original, but the execution, while professional, fails to capitalize on either the inherent emotional power or the hoped-for tension.