TORONTO -- Playwright Phyllis Nagy
makes her motion picture writing and directing debut with “Mrs. Harris, â. an investigation into the 1980s murder scandal that saw Jean Harris
, headmistress of a posh girls school, shoot and kill her lover of 15 years, cardiologist Dr. Herman “Hy” Tarnower, the world-renowned creator of the “Scarsdale Diet.”
The film was “inspired” by Shana Alexander’s book, but the tone comes straight out of the tabloids. This tone lies somewhere south of smugness but north of pure derision.
The HBO movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, but it doesn’t feel entirely at home on the big screen. Its two stars, Annette Bening
and Ben Kingsley
, do wonderful jobs, but the repetitive and arch film feels small and condescending.
The movie begins with a credits sequence in which old movie clips show angry women gunning down two-timing lovers as a jocular rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame” plays on the soundtrack. The movie then continues this theme as it begins at the end when our Miss Jean guns down Dr. T.
Nagy stages scene according to Harris’ testimony -- that it was a failed suicide attempt in which the doctor’s intervention lead to his death. Much later, the scene is revisited and restaged as a cold-blooded murder, but Nagy’s heart clearly isn’t in the second scenario. For her entire movie portrays Jean Harris
, a neurotic, depressed, pill-popping, tired woman of 56, exhausted by her lover’s frequent infidelities, as a woman who genuinely wanted to do herself in.
The movie heads into the murder trial with documentary-style interviews of witnesses and cross-examinations by lawyers even as it backtracks in flashbacks through the years of ill-fated romance between the society doctor and lively divorcee.
Very early on, Hy declares to Jean, “I’m your bastard.” That essentially sums up the movie and their relationship. Scenes of romance, betrayal and disillusionment spiral back to romance and then more unfaithfulness with tiresome regularity despite the superb efforts of the two stars.
Only actors with their skills can discover so many levels in characters that never change course. Hy will always be a bastard, though maybe not Jean’s bastard, and she will always be willing to tolerate -- or at least dismiss with a withering quip -- his fragrant philandering.
But the sheer banality of it all overwhelms the film. Perhaps aware of this, Nagy takes us off for side adventures such as a gym locker room where all the males secretly admire the size of Hy’s genitals.
Pop songs from the era, often about obsessive love, comment on the melodrama on screen. The film achieves a period look without calling attention to it. And one can only surmise that the re-creation of Hy’s bedroom is scrupulously accurate for what other reason can one give for such atrocious decor?
Killer Films/Number 9 Films/John Wells Prods.
Credits: Writer/director: Phyllis Nagy; Inspired by the book by: Shana Alexander; Producer: Chrisann Verges; Executive producers: Elizabeth Karlsen
, Pamela Koffler
, Christine Vachon
, John Wells; Director of photography: Steven B. Poster; Production designer: Alison Dominitz; Costumes: Julie Weiss; Music: John Frizzell; Editors: Curtiss Clayton
, Lee Percy.
Cast: Jean Harris: Annette Bening; Dr. Herman Tarnower: Ben Kingsley; Marge: Frances Fisher; Arthur: Philip Hall Baker; Tarnower’s sister: Cloris Leachman; Lynne: Chloe Sevigny.
No MPAA rating, running time 94 minutes.