The Secrets We Keep, review: a chilling Nazi-era reunion in American suburbia

Noomi Rapace as a survivor of Nazi violence who thinks she has a chance to flip things - Sky
Noomi Rapace as a survivor of Nazi violence who thinks she has a chance to flip things - Sky
  • Dir: Yuval Adler. Starring: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz, Jeff Pope. 15 cert, 97 mins.

In this sturdy moral-quandary thriller from Israel’s Yuval Adler, the mystery begins with a whistle. It’s overheard by Maja (Noomi Rapace) as she blows bubbles with her young son in the local park – the standard “c’mere” sound followed by something more distinctive, a little like the first four notes of Happy Birthday to You.

Maja turns to see a tall man in a checked shirt at the edge of the grass calling his dog: a completely unremarkable sight in this neat, Norman Rockwell suburb somewhere in the post-war United States. (The year must be 1959 or 1960, since the local cinema is showing North by Northwest – a classic wrong-man movie.) Maja’s boy happily carries on blowing bubbles, the outsides of which dance with rainbow refractions. But it is clear from his mother’s slowly dawning look of sick recognition that a very thin, very vulnerable surface has just been popped.

Maja is a Romanian of gypsy descent, and came to America with her doctor husband Lewis (Chris Messina) to escape her memories of the war – and specifically, an unimaginably traumatic encounter 15 years previously in which she was raped by Nazi soldiers, and her younger sister murdered. But the reappearance of that whistle – a vivid, specific memory from the attack, which we occasionally glimpse in starkly lit flashback – suggests fresh starts are not so simple, or perhaps even possible, even if you flee to the other side of the world.

So Maja takes action. By which I mean she tracks down the man, who is played by Joel Kinnaman, knocks him out with a hammer, bundles him into the boot of her car, drives him home, ties him up in her cellar, and tries to extract a confession. You might recall Sigourney Weaver attempting something similar 27 years ago in Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden, and Adler and Ryan Covington’s script performs the same kind of is-he-or-isn’t-he dance, predictably (if also enjoyably) buffeting our sympathies this way and that.

Maja’s captive insists he is the wrong man of the piece – that he is Thomas, an innocent Swiss clerk turned labourer – and begs to be allowed to return to his American-born wife and daughter. But Maja’s conviction that this is the German she remembers as Karl never wavers. As for hubby Lewis, he isn’t sure what to think, though he gets on board with the interrogation itself surprisingly quickly.

Most of the ensuing twists and crises can be seen coming from miles away, such as the scene in which Maja is talking calmly in the living room to the policeman searching for Thomas when her husband bursts out of the cellar yelling “He told me something!”, sporting a fresh black eye and covered in sweat. (Impressively, the cop still fails to join the dots.) Aside from one nicely judged late speech from Kinnaman and a section in which Maja strikes up a tentative friendship with her captive’s wife (a valuable Amy Seimetz), the script is not big on nuance.

What sense there is of big ideas being thoughtfully chewed over stems largely from Rapace’s steely, wounded central performance, which often feels like a decade-later echo of her work in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films. In a cruel cosmic moral reversal, Maja has to live with the burden of someone else’s guilt: Rapace makes you feel its weight bearing down, and in turn lifts the picture above its more formulaic instincts.

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