Secret In Their Eyes (2015) is a recent remake of a foreign language film in Hollywood English. A prolific source, films from other countries. One might have seen them without even knowing their origin, from as far back as The Magnificent Seven (Seven Samurai, Japan), or this other Japanese transplant, Shall We Dance, or from Israel, The Debt, or The Departed (Infernal Affairs, Hong Kong). The most popular in recent years is probably The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from Sweden, based on the book series by Swedish writer Stieg Larsson.
How successful are these transpositions? To be fair, each production needs to be judged on its own merits; Scorsese won four Oscars with The Departed.
But unlike the book to film adaptations, we’re not comparing two different art forms but like kinds. With this in mind, there are inherently certain challenges, especially with the original being an acclaimed work.
This current English version of Secrets In Their Eyes is case in point. It’s pitted against an Oscar winner, the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film from Argentina, an exceptional production. You’d have to match it to justify the attempt to remake.
Further, how the story works is almost wholly rests on one final shocking twist at the end. For those already familiar with the original Argentinian film, or have read the book – its movie tie-in edition out in bookstores everywhere in recent months – watching this latest version would naturally cut down on the intensity and suspense.
From one who’d experienced all three, here are some of my thoughts.
The Secret in their Eyes was originally a novel written by Argentinian author Eduardo Sacheri. It is a crime thriller set in the Dirty War period, mid 1970’s to 1980’s, a decade when the military government suppressed civil rights to eradicate left-wing subversives and dissidents. Many disappeared, and many more suddenly became political prisoners.
The story has two main plots. First, a young wife is raped and murdered, leaving the young widower devastated. Unsolved for years until a chance occurrence – a petty crime – leads police to pick up the murderer. He is tried, sentenced and sent to jail. But a personal vendetta and political corruption lead to his release after a short imprisonment, sending the young widower spiralling down to utter despondence.
The second plot line is the unrequited love of the protagonist, a recently retired judiciary official, for a court judge on whom he had a crush all the years, an obsession that continues to nudge him even into his retirement as much as the unjust murder case he had handled.
The plot is intricate, the story riveting, the characters well developed, but I have one issue with the novel, and that’s the writing style. Mind you, this is written in a personable and even colloquial style (maybe credit to the narrator of the audiobook), easy to get into. But here’s the rub.
The book is the best illustration of overwriting I’ve come across in recent years. Superfluous descriptions of characters, detours into backstories and anecdotes that are unnecessary. I can’t help but think of Bach, yes, J.S., who wrote his music with a grace note at the end as ornament, or used it sparingly in a piece. Well, Sacheri scatters grace notes all over the page.
The 2009 Movie Adaptation
The Argentinian film based on the novel was one of those adaptations that I’d enjoyed more than the book.
It’s an intense, moving and soulful film with superb performance. For a crime thriller to be moving and soulful is a rarity. It goes deep into the characters’ innermost being, not only for the tragic survivor, Morales the young widower, but for the Court official, Benjamin, and others involved.
The film is detailed and thoughtful in its handling of the complex and intricate storylines. The actors are charismatic in drawing viewers in. The music score is gripping. I downloaded it right after I’d seen the movie.
For even more dramatic effect, the ending is what gives this film its distinct signature. The screenwriter/director Juan José Campanella took the liberty to depict an even more chilling twist than that in the book.
The 2015 Movie Adaptation
Billy Ray is the screenwriter and director. Ray is known for writing several acclaimed works including Captain Philips (Oscar nom. for Best Screenplay, 2013) Hunger Games (2012), State of Play (2009), and Shattered Glass (2003) which he also directs.
To transplant the Argentinian story onto American soil, Ray discards the Dirty War setting, which is understandable, and replaces with a war on terror scenario after 9/11, which is also understandable. National security has been entrenched in the American political psyche ever since that fateful day.
Ray has three A-listers to work with. But to direct them, he seems to have a handful. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a newly retired FBI investigator Ray (boggles me why screenwriter/director Billy Ray chooses the name) who thirteen years ago had to deal with the murder of his colleague Jess’s (Julia Roberts) daughter Carolyn (Zoe Graham). Coming into the picture is a Harvard Law grad DA Claire (Nichole Kidman) beginning her career. Ray has a crush on Claire the moment he sees her, who looks forever young between the time lapse as the film switches back and forth from 2002 to the present.
These three characters have to deal with a mishandling of justice, as the suspect of Jess’s daughter’s murder is let go due to a different set of political priorities held by the brassy boss (Martin Morales, again, why pick that name? Morales is the young widower in the novel, the victim’s husband, another victim). Now just as Ray is retiring, a new lead comes up and he wants the case re-opened.
The story should be developed more to allow the characters to come alive. Now, they just seem to be going through the motion of acting and trying very hard at that, except Nicole Kidman. With Kidman, there’s something elusive about her that is hard to pin down. There seems to be a consensus between the director and the actress that says: looks are everything; just my presence is enough, no need to get serious.
On the other hand, there’s Julia Roberts, who has put forth an intense performance, conveying just the opposite, and that’s: looks aren’t important; I intend to win hearts with my sincerity and efforts. Good for her, I think she has done a good job here, despite a role that’s against type, giving her limited expressive outlets except being somber and dazed. But I like the last shot of her looking out the window at the ending.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, such a talented actor as demonstrated in 12 Years A Slave, seems to be directionless here. Maybe it’s the script, maybe it’s the direction, in both or either, it’s still Ray (Billy). As the helmsman, he needs to give the character Ray some insightful prompters. No, first as a screenwriter, he needs to develop more complexity in his story, and give his characters something to do to move it along instead of just have them face each other and talk.
But with these three, it just might be enough seeing them face each other and talk.
As mentioned above, the twist in the end is the distinct mark of the film. So, I was expecting the sequences leading up to it be driven with more powerful momentum, a crescendo in suspense. Somehow, it looks more like an anti-climax here than the final thrust of a thriller.
However, to watch these three actors come together on the same screen is still an interesting proposal. Overall, not as bad as some critics had sentenced.
Novel: ~ ~ ~ Ripples
2009 Argentinian Movie: ~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
2015 English Version: ~ ~ ~ Ripples