Secret in Their Eyes | Film review - Dogged Hollywood sequel falls short of Oscar-winning original

Secret in Their Eyes Chiwetel Ejiofor Nicole Kidman.jpg
(Image credit: Karen Ballard)
(Image credit: Karen Ballard)

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts head the cast of this glossy Hollywood remake of the Oscar-winning Argentinian thriller The Secret in Their Eyes.

Written and directed by Captain Phillips screenwriter Billy Ray, the new Secret in Their Eyes seeks to translate the original film’s haunting murder mystery from late-20th-century Buenos Aires to post 9/11 Los Angeles. It’s a dogged effort, but the change of setting prevents the US movie’s exploration of love and longing, justice and retribution from delivering the same electrifying charge as its predecessor.

Secret in Their Eyes Chiwetel Ejiofor Nicole Kidman 2.jpg

(Image credit: Karen Ballard)

Ejiofor takes the role of the story’s resolute investigator – the part Ricardo Darin played with such wonderful sardonic intelligence in the original. Here he’s an FBI agent, Ray Kasten, rather than a court investigator, but he remains a blue-collar striver hopelessly in love with his upper-class Ivy League-educated superior and obsessed with solving the brutal rape and murder of a young woman.

Kidman is his unattainable object of desire, Claire Sloan, the posh Deputy District Attorney serving with Karsten and Julia Roberts’ DA investigator Jess Cobb on an anti-terrorism joint task force in the paranoid aftermath of 9/11. And it’s this mood of paranoia among the authorities that hobbles the trio’s hunt for the murderer.

Their chief suspect is creepy loner Marzin (played by Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole), who turns out to be a federal informant supplying information on a reputedly radical LA mosque and consequently under the protection of bullishly brusque local DA Martin Morales (Alfred Molina). And the closer Kasten and his colleagues get to nailing their man, the further he is placed out of their reach. More than a decade later, however, the case cold, Kasten remains determined to solve it.

Secret in Their Eyes Chiwetel Ejiofor Alfred Molina.jpg

(Image credit: Karen Ballard)

Up to a point, the choice of 9/11 as a backdrop to the story is a canny one, allowing Ray to shoehorn into his narrative a number of interesting parallels with Argentinian director Juan José Campanella’s original. Yet the new setting has serious drawbacks. It requires the story’s time span to be compressed from 25 to 13 years, which means that the sense of a lifetime of regret is nowhere near as powerful. And, more significantly, it also means that the new film fails to recapture the atmosphere of fear and menace that made the first Secret so gripping.

Ray ramps up the action in his version, offering a warehouse shootout that is full of sound and fury but which lacks the queasy tension of the corresponding scene in the original. Ultimately, the institutional corruption fomented by 9/11 can’t match the terror of Argentina’s Dirty War (Guerra Sucia) of the 1970s and 80s, a background that made the first film’s murder investigation a genuine matter of life and death and which gave such a frisson to the frustrated romance at its heart.

Certificate 15. Runtime 111 mins. Director Billy Ray

Jason Best

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.