The Argentinean movie The Secret in Their Eyes was a domestic box-office smash in 2009 and the recipient of the Foreign Language Film Oscar the following year. The Hollywood remake of the film retains the original broad structure and plot, but makes a few crucial changes. In the original, a retired police investigator writing a novel about the unsolved rape and murder of a young woman uses the opportunity to retrace his steps. His quest leads him to the door of the woman who was the government lawyer in the case, and for whom he held a candle.

The movie is set against the political unrest and state-sponsored murders in Argentina in the 1970s, and suggests that the overall climate of violence would have allowed the brutal death of a recently married woman to be brushed under the carpet.

In Billy Ray’s remake, the victim is the daughter of Jess (Julia Roberts), a police investigator, and the teenager’s death deeply scars Jess’s colleague Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), so much so that he returns several years later to attempt to solve the mystery. Although Jess appears to have moved on, Claire (Nicole Kidman), the government prosecutor with whom Ray was secretly in love, reluctantly sanctions an off-the-books investigation that leads Ray to discovering more twists than he had bargained for.

The strong performances by the leads notwithstanding, the Hollywood remake doesn’t quite capture the complexity and thrills of the original. The narrative confusingly cuts back and forth between the past and the present as in the Argentinean film, but the chemistry between the police officer and the lawyer are missing from the English-language version. Ejiofor and Kidman work hard to suggest unrequited love brewing below the surface, but neither character can sustain the thought. Kidman, whose facial muscles have been mysteriously frozen of late, is particularly unable to suggest a woman torn between her picture-perfect marriage and her possible ardour for an investigator from a different race and class.

Roberts is far more effective as the distraught mother, her immense grief concentrated in her puppy eyes and downturned facial muscles. Powered by A-listers, Secret in Their Eyes trundles through its television movie aesthetics and often limp drama. The investigation is tacked onto a 9/11 backdrop for reasons as unclear as the gender reversal in the remake. The absence of romantic desire that drove the officer’s attempts at closure in the original remains the new movie’s weakest point. Will the Ivy League-educated Claire succumb to the charms of the brusque and blue-collared Ray? Their mutual passion remains hidden from the eyes.