El secreto de sus ojos (2009) // VS // The Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

While at first blush the two might seem to be the same story, really only the broadest of strokes have been retained in the adaptation from Argentina to North America, and all the richness of character has been drained out for a by-the-numbers crime thriller with an overqualified cast.

EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS (2009) won awards and acclaim as a mystery wherein the investigation into the murder of a young woman twenty-five years in the past stirs up old relationships when the investigator returns to town to try and write a book about his experience on the case. We slowly learn what went wrong, why he was forced to leave, and the life he was forced to leave behind — framed around an unconsummated romance with his superior and the deep vein of corruption running through the Argentinian legal system.

It’s very much sincere and charismatic and takes time to show how the incompleteness of the case has worn on everyone involved, that they have fallen into incomplete lives even now, two decades on, and you sincerely hope for them to find solace or closure.

There’s also an incredible single take chase shot that flies into a soccer stadium, sweeps around the crowd and then pursues the invesigators through the chaos after their mark. That shot alone is a technical marvel worth the price of admission.

Being a mystery, I’ll stay as light on the details as possible, but it’s deserving of the praise and Ricardo Darin is a treasure.

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2015) takes the skeleton of the case and a passing glance at the romace framing the narrative and reshuffles everything else so that nothing fits together in the same way nor approaches anything like the engagement of the original.

The cast is excellent — indeed, this is dream casting for the story and I don’t doubt they were able to pull Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman and Alfred Molina in simply by screening the original for them. But that’s about as far as my compliments will go.

First and foremost: almost all of the actual detective work happens off screen. The bonding of the investigative team originally came from working out how each of their personas lent something of value to the case and they grew closer through it. In the 2015 version we’re shown a few brief flashbacks of people “being friends” and that’s meant to suffice. It doesn’t.

The politics in this version is a strange shoehorning of post-9/11 anti-Muslim fear involving a stakeout at a mosque that ultimately lends nothing to the story at hand. It can’t possibly have been twenty-five years worth of time between the two parts of the story, and very little effort was actually made to make either time period distinguishable or distinct from one another.

And that impressive chase shot I mentioned? It becomes a single drone shot coming into a baseball match and then as soon as the chase starts proper it just cuts like a normal chase. No single take. Why even bother adapting something if you’re not going to pay attention to the things that made the original unique?

I would highly recommend watching the Argentinian version, and then come back here to find out a little more on how the American remake fucked it up.

SPOILER WARNING

The main, and worst, change to the story is the forced connection of the murdered girl to the investgation team — Julia Roberts plays a character that doesn’t exist in the original and it’s her daughter that winds up dead in a dumpster unceremoniously.

So this character then takes over the role of the grieving husband (one of the suspects in the original) and we’re almost immediately given a clear connection to the situation already underway at the mosque. No detective work needed, a suspect is just immediately linked and explained away as being untouchable as an informant. Which is bullshit, and all the excuses made to justify this special treatment are weak.

There’s no mob in this version, no corrupt element working with impunity and arrogance knowing they can walk out of any jail cell, no threat of violence to the investigators or prosecutors that force them to flee their own lives just to escape being coldly murdered by a psychopath with dangerous connections.

The romance is tepid, the framing of the biographical novel is nonexistent. It’s all telling, no showing. We never see those lingering glances, we never experience the secret in their eyes.

Darin’s investigator sees their prime suspect in old photographs with the victim, gazing (creepily) at her. Lurking. He knew this woman a long time before he raped and murdered her. And what’s more, the investigator recognises a similar look in photos of himself. It’s a point of introspection and discomfort at this dark reflection of desire. He sees another look he recognises in the haunted eyes of the husband who never receives justice for his murdered wife — a look of a love felt and lost.

This, the name of the film, isn’t even so much as glanced over in the remake. Sure, Ejiofor’s investigator sees the suspect looking shifty at the victim in a photo, but the suspect just happened to be at a barbecue because he was working as an informant with the unit. He has no other connection. It’s never even made clear how he managed to find and kill her or why he did it. The emotional weight gets shifted to Roberts’ character and it feels unearned, especially when the first time we meet the daughter is when she shows up dead. The title doesn’t mean anything here.

Why adapt it this way? One can only assume the praise of the original garnered attention for a quick buck, faithfulness be damned, and dumb arrogance on the writer’s part for thinking they could just slap together a cliffnotes version of the story on good word of mouth.

The adaptation is a perfect encapsulation of localisation done wrong and completely missing all the subtlety and subtext of a genuinely great film.

Watch the original. Skip the remake.

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