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Secret in Their Eyes

D: Billy Ray / 111m

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Michael Kelly, Joe Cole, Alfred Molina, Zoe Graham

Remakes of foreign language movies are never easy. Not everything translates as well in another language, and some of the idiosyncracies or nuances of the original movie will be lost in the process. But that’s not to say that foreign language movies shouldn’t be remade in English, or that movie makers shouldn’t try to put their own stamp on an existing idea/concept/storyline, just that if they do, we shouldn’t be too surprised if the end result isn’t as compelling or as satisfying as the original.

Such is the case with Secret in Their Eyes, the English language remake of El secreto de sus ojos (2009), an Argentinian thriller that was a bit of a surprise when it was released, and which garnered critical acclaim around the world. It’s a gripping, very stylishly realised movie, and easily one of the best movies of that particular year, a fact supported by its taking home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. With that version being so successful, the question that needs to be asked is: do we need this one as well?

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The answer is not really, no. It was always going to be a difficult challenge, but when it was announced that the writer of Captain Phillips (2013), Billy Ray, was going to write and direct the movie, and the services of Messrs Ejiofor, Kidman and Roberts had been secured for the trio of lead roles, you could have been forgiven for thinking that this was one remake that couldn’t go wrong. But right from the start there’s a sense that something’s not quite right, that whatever magic made the original such a breath of fresh air is missing, and that what follows is likely to be more disappointing than rewarding.

And so it proves. The basic plotting and structure are retained but where the original wove its connected stories over a distance of twenty-five years, Ray reduces it to thirteen (perhaps to avoid having to cast two sets of actors in the lead roles). He also retains the cutting back and forth between the two time periods, as Ejiofor’s obsessed FBI Counter-Terrorism expert Ray Kasten investigates the death of his friend and colleague Jess Cobb’s daughter (Graham). While Jess (Roberts) is overwhelmed by grief, Karsten determines to bring her daughter’s killer to justice, but soon finds himself in hot water when his main suspect, Marzin (Cole), is connected to a surveillance operation he’s a part of, and none of his superiors, including DA Martin Morales (Molina), want to know anything about his potential involvement in a murder.

While Kasten battles political expediency, he finds an ally in newly appointed Assistant DA Claire Sloan (Kidman). Together they try to build a strong enough case against Marzin, but their efforts go unrewarded. Thirteen years later, and with Marzin having gone to ground in the meantime, Kasten stumbles across new evidence that points to Marzin’s whereabouts. He gets back in touch with Claire (now the DA, having succeeded Morales) and Jess, and vows that this time they’ll get Marzin. Claire is hesitant and unconvinced, while Jess seems unimpressed and unwilling to help. Kasten presses on, but as before his plans go awry, and catching Marzin proves as difficult as it was thirteen years before.

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By retaining the twin storylines and having them run side by side as the movie unfolds, Ray strives to keep the audience guessing as to the eventual outcome of both, but in the process he robs the material of any pace, and makes some scenes appear out of context to what’s gone before. Others seem to have sprung out of thin air, with certain relationship developments – a lukewarm romance between Kasten and Claire being the main culprit – stuttering in and out of life. It’s as if certain editorial choices were made in the cutting room, and the structure was the ultimate loser. It also makes for several frustrating moments when the viewer has to stop and remind themselves of where they (and the movie) are.

And unfortunately, Ray isn’t anywhere near as good a director as he is a writer. Too many scenes lack the appropriate energy, and his use of the camera doesn’t always show a knack for effective framing, leading to some shots where his cast are marginalised unnecessarily at the expense of the broader composition. He and the audience should be grateful then that, despite all these bars to their doing so, Ejiofor and Roberts both come up with terrific performances (Kidman is good but as with so many of her performances in recent years, she somehow manages to fall just shy of impressing completely). Kasten’s dogged, guilt-charged determination gives Ejiofor the chance to flex his acting muscles to highly charged effect, while Roberts steals every scene she’s in as the detached, grief-stricken mother who is a shadow of her former self; her de-glammed features display Jess’s sorrow so perfectly it’s heartbreaking to look at her.

But these are two unexpected positives in a movie that steadfastly refuses to provide its audience with anything other than a concerted diet of perfunctory plot and character developments, and which also asks said audience to take several leaps of faith in terms of the narrative and how it plays out (at one point, Kasten and Claire make a deduction – which Ray clumsily illustrates – that they can’t possibly have arrived at in the way that they do). And the end, which should be quietly powerful, as well as disturbing, lacks the necessary heightened emotion to provide the payoff the movie so badly needs by this point.

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Thanks to an ill-considered approach to the material, Ray’s adaptation lacks appeal and falls flat far too often to be excusable. As remakes of foreign language movies go it’s not up there with the best, but rather occupies a place much lower down the table, and serves as an object lesson in how not to compensate for the loss of nuance and subtlety present in the original. Some movies, as we all know – and studio executives should know by now – deserve not to be remade, and this is as good an example as any that El secreto de sus ojos should have been one of them.

Rating: 4/10 – laborious, and lacking in too many departments to be anywhere near as effective as it needs to be, Secret in Their Eyes may well be too much of a chore for some viewers to watch all the way through; however this would be doing a disservice to Ejiofor and Roberts, but their performances aside, there’s really very little to recommend this particularly unnecessary remake.

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