Dir: Phyllis Nagy. US.2005. 94mins.
Written and directed bynoted playwright and first-time film-maker Phyllis Nagy, Mrs Harris, atleast in its first third, is a jangly, stylised onslaught on sensibilities thatwill alienate many and intrigue just as many others.
However, once you becomeused to its anti-rhythms and purposeful edginess - and, truth to tell, it doestake a while - this film about a celebrated 1980 US murder case emerges assomething quite fascinating. It also provides a wonderful vehicle for theabundant talents of Annette Bening and, to only a slightly lesser extent, thoseof Ben Kingsley.
It will be shown on HBO inthe US next year, but may interest distributors elsewhere who are looking forsomething that is a bit experimental yet safely grounded with big-name stars.
In March 1980, Jean Harris(Bening), the elegant and classy headmistress of a posh girls' prep school nearWashington DC, was arrested for the murder of her long-standing boyfriend, DrHerbert Tarnower (Kingsley), the celebrated author of the bestselling book TheComplete Scarsdale Medical Diet.
After driving for five hoursthrough pounding rain to say one last goodbye to her lover - who had seriouslyderanged her by his continual infidelity and the prescriptions he supplied tofuel her 15-year pill-popping spree - she either tried to kill herself or him,depending on whom you believe.
The outcome is not in doubtthough: Tarnower dies and Harris is jailed for second-degree murder.
Harris' combination ofupper-class breeding and intense emotional instability was like catnip to thealways insatiable press, and she quickly became an object of derision. DirectorNagy doesn't quite follow this tack, but has decided to play things in a broad,ironic key that will keep audiences hard at work knowing what to think aboutMrs Harris and about how serious to take her. Yet Nagy still somehow manages tokeep her sympathetic without banging any feminist drums.
The film begins with footagefrom various film noirs that highlight the perfidy of the notorious femmesfatales. Rita Hayworth's glorious Put The Blame On Mame is heard on thesoundtrack, and Mrs Harris later sings it out loud, playfully casting herselfin a role others are only too anxious for her to occupy.
Faux-interviews, in thestyle of Christopher Guest mockumentaries like Best In Show, dot thefilm with often unintentionally humorous takes of various subsidiarypersonalities like Tarnower's sister and Harris' best friend.
Quickly enough, the doctoremerges as a figure of towering ego and selfishness who openly admits at onepoint that "I don't love anybody". One of Tarnower's friends opines that whatmade him so attractive to women was the size of his sexual member, and thisclaim is followed by a hilarious, if jarring, number in which all the men inTarnower's health club stare, shocked, at his private parts as he artificiallyfloats along on some sort of moving platform.
Kingsley's role is more asingle, well-played note of boisterous, self-consciously Jewish, vulgar man ofmeans, but Bening gets to act a hundred different emotions, and play all ofthem ironically at the same time. If her previous success, Being Julia,foregrounded her long-lived beauty, here she fearlessly makes herself, attimes, as old and crazy as can be.
Among the secondary players,Cloris Leachman's turn as Tarnower's shrewish sister is exceptional.
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