What happened to the transatlantic accent? Its usage spans more than half of the 20th century, and yet period films seldom incorporate it. On the whole, filmmakers put far more effort into gaudy and theatrical set design and ostentatious pop culture references to situate their stories in the past, never bothering to develop a consummately faithful approach to the presentation of these elements. Disregard for the subtle variances in speech and expression throughout time seems to be one of the most widely acquiesced to faults of movies today, and nothing pulls me out of a story set in 1950 quicker than a cast that acts like it’s 2020.
The Secrets We Keep is as guilty of this as anyone, and further alienates itself from the time period via unimaginative, television-like cinematography and editing catered to audiences with short attention spans. It’s obvious from the thoughtless execution that The Secrets We Keep and others like it have no legitimate reason to be period films. The setting has more to do with marketing than anything else, the way Stranger Things appeals to 1980s nostalgia to reel in viewers for its kitchen sink sci-fi pastiche. It has no business invoking the traumas of the past to stage what amounts to nothing more than a long-running Criminal Minds episode. The hermetical hostage thriller plot, wherein Maja (Noomi Rapace) kidnaps a neighbor (Joel Kinnaman) she suspects to be the Nazi that tortured her and her sister during WWII, evades any meaningful historical context while churning out an assembly line of watered down exploitation clichés.
How are these fleeting, grainy, black-and-white flashbacks supposed to provide the necessary background for us? They fail even to muster emotional identification. If Maja keeps the details of her past deep within her mind, never divulging them to her horn-rim-bespectacled husband played by Chris Messina (plucked right out of the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman), she also deprives the audience of such knowledge. Or rather, the screenplay by Yuval Adler and Ryan Covington can’t (or won’t) tell us the whole story. Maybe that explains the stubbornly unceasing plotting and reluctance to digress temporally into a passage that might clarify or deepen our understanding of her trauma. Any moment that lingers too long might expose how little they actually have to say.
Aside from its glaring lack of connection to the time period, The Secrets We Keep forms a reductive response to the questions posed by the story, betraying a distance from the true material, that being trauma and morality. All of its sensibilities are modern in the worst possible sense, the most evident of these being the tendency to reject human complexity, to bury and avoid ambiguity in favor of self-assured sanctimony. Good is good and bad is bad, and good must always beat bad. And even if one wants to accept those conclusions, they will be left wanting as a result of the filmmaker’s refusal to state clearly what they want to suggest. The Secrets We Keep has no real interest in the secrets we keep, only the cheap thrills produced by the actions to keep them hidden. A quick flashback and then back to the sideshow. The film coddles us like the parents of children who, when caught in the act of making love, tell them it was only wrestling. Of course, this very scenario is one of the earliest to occur in the movie.
A period film? No, it’s merely holocaust fanfiction. | Nic Champion