The images created of small town America in the 1950s, where seemingly everybody had a fridge and large family car, appeared to be an eternity away from the destruction and upheaval of World War II. Yet peace was declared just five years before the decade started so for every adult and, indeed teenager, it was fresh in the memory and remained as such by the time the 60s were about to arrive. And that’s the starting point for The Secrets We Keep, with its industrialised, but nonetheless neat and tidy, small town setting and memories of 14 years ago that simply will not go away.
Romanian-born Maja (Noomi Rapace) met her husband Lewis (Chris Messina) in a Greek hospital just after the war and they’re now part of an all-American small town, leading a comfortable and happy family life with their young son. But when spots a stranger in town who seems horribly familiar, that all starts to unravel. She’s convinced that Thomas (Joel Kinnaman) is the SS officer responsible for the death of her sister after they escaped a German camp and sets out to extract a confession from him. That not only means kidnapping and holding him hostage in the basement of the family home, but revealing her true past to Lewis. And setting out to prove that Thomas’s claims of being Swiss and never having fought in the war are total fiction.
Stories still emerge about former Nazis who changed their identities and lived among unsuspecting communities, so this has a certain ring of truth. More familiar, perhaps, are the similarities with the 1990s Death And The Maiden, first a play and then a film starring Sigourney Weaver. This time round, the basic premise and the structure – essentially a three hander with a few secondary characters – are pretty much the same but the end result has neither the weight or the credibility to see it through. Liberally scattered incongruities don’t help its cause. The slight Rapace overpowering the muscular Kinnaman with a quick tap of a hammer and, singlehandedly, bundling him into the boot of her car and, later, into a makeshift grave that miraculously dug itself. How?
The potential is there for some powerful subjects – trauma, revenge, how evil can exist behind the guise of the ordinary – yet the film displays an unerring ability to dodge those issues. The flashbacks to the wartime events simply aren’t enough, so the overall feeling is of something routine and more than a little flat. Director Yuval Adler also wrote the script and it’s there that much of the problem lies. The characters are under-developed and the dialogue wooden, so the cast don’t stand much of a chance from the get-go. Rapace, who has a more extensive range than this displays, seems to be going through the motions and the mere fact that, as her husband, Messina seems all too willing to go along with what’s happening in the basement, makes him so unbelievable that he’s on a hiding to nothing. Kinnaman doesn’t have a great deal to do once he’s tied to the chair, but he’s the most plausible of the three: his account of his life sows those all-important seeds of doubt in your mind, questioning what’s gone before.
Some sequences carry more conviction as the film unfolds – Maja’s growing friendship with Thomas’s wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), who seems to back up his story, but only partially so that she raises more niggling questions. Or, as far as Maja is concerning, simply confirming what she already knows. The 50s décor and style (late in the decade, presumably, as the local cinema is showing North By Northwest) is nicely re-created but what should be a tense and thought-provoking narrative gets nowhere close to realising its dramatic potential.
Drama, Thriller | Cert: 15 | Sky Cinema | 14 May 2021 | Dir. Yuval Adler | Noomi Rapace, Chris Messina, Joel Kinnaman, Amy Seimetz.