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film review

Julia Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in Secret in Their Eyes.Karen Ballard

The secret in Julia Roberts's eyes are contact lenses. For the moody murder-thriller Secret in Their Eyes, it was the idea of the big-smile actress to wear the cosmetic eyewear to achieve a murky ocular aesthetic. No light in her peepers – she's a shadow of her former self, with secrets hidden.

Secret in Their Eyes is Billy Ray's American remake of the mesmeric Argentine film of the same name that won a foreign-language Oscar in 2010. Here, Roberts is Jess, an L.A. cop consumed with the rape and murder of her daughter 13 years earlier. The case is still open; Jess has shut down. The film flashes back and forth from the present to 2001, where we see the younger Jess in the precinct office flashing pretty-woman teeth and cracking wise like Erin Brockovich. Today? Dead-eyed, stark and sombre.

If Roberts's beaten-down Jess looks sparkless, Ray's Secret in Their Eyes presents as a dreary police procedural. It's a story about moral ambiguity and living in the past, but it packs a weak emotional punch despite the well-wrought efforts of an all-star cast.

Ray (who wrote 2012's The Hunger Games and 2013's Captain Phillips) has rejigged Secret in Their Eyes considerably. Where the original concerned the murder of a man's wife during the "dirty" domestic war waged by Argentina's brutal military junta in the late 1970s and early '80s, Ray's remake involves post-9/11 hysteria.

Starring is the capable British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. He plays Ray, a cop in 2001 who feels somewhat responsible for the girl's murder and who has obsessed over the case ever since. No longer a detective – he now handles security for the New York Mets – he thinks he's located the case's long-lost suspect and travels to Los Angeles in the hope of getting the file reopened.

Upon his return to the West Coast, he finds Claire (Nicole Kidman). Thirteen years earlier, the two of them were rookies in the police force. Today, she's the district attorney.

The Kidman and Ejiofor characters are Bacall-and-Bogey mismatched, but the actors fail to pull off any magic on screen. More screen time devoted to the Jess character would have been preferable.

Plot-wise, the case is reopened and the past is revisited. The old cops and ex-cop Ray have clearly slowed down, which allows for chase scenes in Dodger Stadium and a horse stable that should have never happened.

Director Ray doesn't use the trauma of 9/11 effectively here. It's mostly just a date in time, rather than an emotional benchmark. One could see the World Trade Center's collapsing towers as a metaphor for the devastating impact of a mother's loss, but that might be giving the writer-director too much credit.

If we could go back in time, who among us would not correct mistakes and seize opportunities lost? But the original version of The Secret in Their Eyes was beloved by many. It was fine as it was – nothing is served by a do-over that is underdone.

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