The Secrets We Keep is a clever title for a story about guilt and retribution, as the “we” of that title encompasses both victim and victimiser. If you’ve done something for which you feel ashamed – say, participation in the Third Reich – you’ve got an obvious reason to keep quiet about your identity and history. Unfortunately, your victims might also shroud their unwitting involvement in that history, in part out of survivor’s guilt, and in part because society has a sorry tendency to blame the victim. Especially when she’s a woman. And especially when the crime has been sexual.
So yes, Yuval Adler’s film combines both Nazi atrocity and sexual assault into one narrative package that grapples with how we live with what we, and punish others for what they, have done. It’s ambitious to the point of severe thematic strain. While the twin Big Subjects the movie deals with are extremely serious, they unfortunately diffuse the focus and have a diminishing impact on one another. The melodramatic nature of the story reduces its effectiveness further.
The Secrets We Keep concerns Maja (Noomi Rapace), a Romanian woman who met an American doctor in post-war Greece and moved back with him to suburban America of the late 1950s. It’s 1959, to be exact, as North by Northwest is playing at the local cinema. Maja is living a mostly happy life – some strain with her husband, Lewis (Chris Messina), is hinted at, but it isn’t significantly compromising their domestic bliss, which includes a son, Patrick.
One day, she sees a man with a pronounced German accent also living in her town, whom she’s sure she recognises. We don’t at first know why she recognises him, because Maja has not been up front with Lewis on all the details of her movements during the war. Turns out she was part of a group of itinerant Romani peoples, who used to go by the unfortunate name “gypsies,” who were also the targets of Nazi genocide. One night, Maja’s community was attacked by a Nazi outfit who raped the women and left them all for dead, and she’s sure this man (Joel Kinnaman) was one of them.
Sort of impulsively, she lures this man to fix her broken down car, and subdues him with a hammer, meaning to take him to a shallow grave in the woods and shoot him. When the man pleads for his life and swears he’s a Swiss named Thomas – not the Nazi war criminal Karl who assaulted her – she brings him home to her basement instead, to kidnap him and conscript her husband in what to do about the situation. Because of the man’s convincing story of his own innocence, and the post-traumatic behaviours his wife has not adequately explained to him, Lewis is not sure who to believe.
The Secrets We Keep has a very tricky balance to keep. Namely, it creates uncertainty and tension in the story by obscuring whether Maja is a reliable witness or not. Surely this is commentary on a patriarchal society that is slow to believe women, especially when a man is giving competing testimony. However, it’s also putting us as viewers in the shoes of potentially doubting this woman, by giving us enough evidence to believe she could be making a horrible mistake and torturing an innocent man. It may be the movie’s point to discomfit us, but it has to undercut Maja’s credibility to do so.
There’s no doubt Adler and co-writer Ryan Covington don’t want this to be a portrait of a hysterical woman, but a lot of the dialogue and action is overheated enough that the movie itself verges on unwitting hysteria from time to time. Certain lines even prompt guffaws. There’s a part when Maja has gone further with their captive than what she and Lewis agreed, and he says “You tortured him without me? I thought we were going to do things together!” The clumsy phrasing renders this the equivalent of some mundane domestic activity they had agreed to “do together,” like washing the dishes. And Adler and Covington surely do not mean it as a joke, as this is not a film with a sense of humour.
It does have a sense of justice, which is what gives it the value it does have, especially because its sense of justice is not uncomplicated. Underneath those ripe plot mechanisms is a sincere desire to engage with what it means to live with trauma, and how you behave when given the opportunity to seek revenge for it. As a sign of her generosity of spirit, Maja tries to figure out if the man she’s kidnapped is defined by more than the incident she believes him guilty of. She befriends the man’s wife (Amy Seimetz), an American ignorant of his past, who only knows that he’s gone missing. If this man has done good after the bad he put into the world, does that count for something?
These attempts at complexity count for something in the final assessment of The Secrets We Keep. They would count for more if the film could rise above its more feverish movie-of-the-week shortcomings, which extend to that title. Clever though it may be in encapsulating the film’s themes, it also gives a true sense of the film’s limitations as a piece of art.
The Secrets We Keep opens 17 September for a limited season at Palace Cinemas, followed by a VOD release through the Foxtel Store on 21 October.