‘Secret in Their Eyes’ retells an intriguing story but will not repeat an Oscar win
Writer/Director: Billy Ray
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts
“The Secret in Their Eyes” was Argentina’s 2009 entry to the 82nd Academy Awards, and on Mar. 7, 2010, this film scored an upset over “The White Ribbon” and won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Not knowing anything about this movie at the time, I rightfully wanted to see it and, quite frankly, felt a bit cheated it was not yet available in U.S. theaters.
Fortunately, “The Secret in Their Eyes” opened at Harkins Camelview a month or two later, so I promptly zipped over to Scottsdale and experienced this highly-praised legal drama. As the film ended, the credits rolled and the warm house lights began to light the dark movie theater, I did not know if I would see a better film that year. As 2010 came to a close, “The Secret in Their Eyes” was, in fact, my #1 film of the year.
Five years later, Hollywood created an American version of this story starring A-list heavyweights Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts. This 2015 film – which follows the overall narrative of the original - is a solid and intriguing remake with some darker tones, but it lacks some of the subtle nuances which made the 2009 movie much more human.
The setting is 2002 Los Angeles in the wake of 9/11, and anti-terror agencies find themselves on high alert for a potential next attack by Muslim extremists. Searching for sleeper cells in any available corner of the city can surely breed unhealthy doses of paranoia. For agents or officers like Jess (Roberts), she balances the stress of a life-and-death daily grind with a content and happy home life. Very early in the film, however, a horrific and senseless crime shatters her family, and her close friend/colleague Ray (Ejiofor) becomes singularly focused to catch the man who did it. Ray tries to elicit help from his new boss, a Harvard-educated lawyer named Claire (Kidman), to help, but political entanglements of a post-9/11 world make it much more complicated.
Meanwhile, Jess suffers with grief as Roberts delivers a convincing and heartbreaking performance of a woman attempting to cope with loss. Roberts couples a stripped-down appearance – with unstyled hair and a skin tone resembling expired skim milk – with distinct undertones of rage and misery coursing through her veins and sometimes settling behind her exhausted eyes. There is no question that Roberts delivers some of her best work of her career in this film.
All of the other lead actors offer good performances as writer/director Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”, “The Hunger Games”) takes the characters and the audience on a story which continuously bounces between two time periods: 2002 and 2015. Billy Ray skillfully transports us to the period when the abovementioned crime took place. He also brings us to present day in which unsettled scores from 13 years prior still need to be resolved. Sometimes, it is initially confusing which year we are observing, but then we notice Ray’s graying hair or Jess’ more haggard presence, and then we become settled.
The two time periods keep the audience challenged, but the material intrigues on its own. Ray, Jess, Claire, and another agent named Bumpy (Dean Norris) try to find this unknown suspect through the use of detective elbow grease, perseverance and an unlikely clue: the look of one person’s eyes in a random photo. “Secret in Their Eyes” not only refers to a look into a criminal’s “soul” but a glance from Ray as well. Ray is in love with Claire, but he cannot keep much of a secret. Unfortunately, secret or not, I did not see much chemistry between Ejiofor and Kidman, so any sexual tension with Ray and Claire did not translate on screen for me. This may not be the fault of the actors, however, because the ever-present darkness of a post-9/11 state of mind truly erodes any cinematic mood for an office romance. On the other hand, Ray and Claire did work well as a team to weave through legal and political entanglements in trying to bring in the key – and only – suspect, and that particular strain on their characters felt real.
Ultimately, “Secret in Their Eyes” tells an effective story of two ideas: a victim’s reaction to a senseless act and the power that political machinery has over the average man or woman. In both ways, the film succeeds and offers some lasting and haunting moments, but as mentioned earlier, the gloomier tone of the 2015 film does not bring the emotional impacts of its 2009 predecessor, which uses a gentler hand. I will not make it a secret: If you have to choose, see the 2009 film. Then again, you cannot lose by watching the American adaption. Just do not expect another Oscar upset in 2016. (3/4 stars)