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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Mrs. Harris" (2005)
Directed By: Phyllis Nagy
Starring: Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, Frances Fisher, Cloris Leachman, & Ellen Burstyn
MPAA Rating: Not Applicable
There are good movies and there are bad movies. There are average movies and there are amazing movies. Movies come in all different states of quality. But, "Mrs. Harris" is one of the very few movies that just don't fall into any category perfectly. The performances are flawless, the movie is well-made, and the initial storyline is intriguing. On the other hand, the movie is just uninteresting, disjointed, and pretentious. The promise of the plot is ruined due to tacky flashback sequences that don't appear to be in any particular order, many of which don't lead to anything of importance. "Mrs. Harris" desires to be a hard-hitting mystery that seeks to explain a real-life event, but it simply isn't. It doesn't do nearly enough to grab its audience, making for a rather dull watch. Do not get me wrong! "Mrs. Harris" is a well-made film and Annette Bening gives a spectacular performance. It has every ingredient to make a perfect film, except for one the most important one. That ingredient is emotion. I kept waiting to feel something for the characterssomething that would make me give a darn about them, but nothing ever presented itself. In fact, it seemed as though the movie wanted to do the complete opposite of what it wanted to do. It made both of our main characters into two dull, unlikable, and rather clichéd people. We are supposed to feel for these people? I do not think so.
Jean Harris (Bening) had dated the famous inventor of the Scarsdale Diet, Dr. Herman Tarnower (Kinglsey) for fourteen years before she shot him to death in his home. Harris, a divorced schoolteacher, had been swept off of her feet by Tarnower's irresistible charms but, unfortunately, she was not the only one. Tarnower was famous for being a complete womanizer who moved from one woman to the next without so much as a heartfelt "I Love You". But, Jean thought she was different. After all, Tarnower had proposed to her with a ring worth more than $10,000. Later, Tarnower reclaimed his proposal, completely destroying Jean. Harris is, according to reports, a depressed, obsessive, and mentally-unstable woman who was suicidal and almost completely unhinged. After the death of Tarnower, Jean testified that she had only come to say goodbye and was planning on committing suicide. But, Tarnower attempted to wrestle the gun from her grasp and was accidentally shot in the process. Based on the 1980's media spectacle, "Mrs. Harris" tells this intriguing story of murder, obsession, and infidelity though it is not nearly as interesting as it should have been.
The performances in "Mrs. Harris" are easily the highlight. Annette Bening gave everything she had and gave a phenomenal performance. I found her to be completely convincing. Unfortunately, the script did not give her part enough interest. Ben Kinglsey needed to give a darn good performance to make up for both "Bloodrayne" and "A Sound of Thunder". He did a great job but not good enough to rectify both of those debacles. Why Ben? Why would you follow up two travesties with a mediocre film? Will you ever be in a good movie again? Cloris Leachman is always a delight. Here, she takes on a very serious role and handles herself very eloquently though, I could not get the thought of her in "Scary Movie 4" out of my head. Frances Fisher gives an elegant, subdued performance. She did a nice job. Ellen Burstyn's role in this movie is now probably most remembered for being fourteen seconds in length and yet able to get her an Emmy nomination. Her performance, in my opinion, was good enough to warrant a nomination. She clearly believes in quality over quantity, because, in fourteen seconds, she gives a performance better than many people could give in an hour and a half.
When "Mrs. Harris" was over, I just could not grasp what I had seen. Every aspect of "Mrs. Harris", individually, is almost completely perfect. But, when everything was put together, these perfect pieces formed such a dull picture. I just didn't find myself interesting in the movie at all. I could not have cared less whether or not the characters lived, died, went to jail, went free, or ate each other in a bloody rage. There was no realism in the characters. I couldn't relate to any of them. The biggest problem, however, is the way in which the movie is edited. It begins with one scenario of the death of Tarnower (the one Jean Harris says occurred), then flashes back and forth between the court case of Harris and her past life with Tarnower. However, the flashback sequences all seem so disjointed. They are, at times, showing an argument between Tarnower and Harris and, at other times, showing them in love (or comfort, in the eyes of Tarnower). I simply got sick of having to regroup every fifteen minutes of the movie to decipher what page the movie was on and how this unlikable couple was getting along. You could watch "Mrs. Harris" simply for the performances and not feel cheated. So, after much deliberation, I have decided to recommend the movie. But remember: view it for the purpose of seeing great performances in action, not a great movie.
Final Thought: "Mrs. Harris" isn't a great movie, but its performances make up for many of its shortcomings.
Overall Rating: 5/10 (B-)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I saw this movie upon recommendation from a friend and I have to say, I
am not disappointed with it. It's campy, yes, but the campiness works
because of the talented cast. The mighty Ben Kingsley as Hy Tarnower
and the always terrific Annette Bening as Jean Harris are electric
together. The supporting cast was great too-Cloris Leachman, Mary
McDonnell, and Francis Fisher all gave top-notch performances.
My only complaint with this film is all the flashback scenes of the murder. I mean, it starts out with the murder, but then we see it for what seems like five times more. It was too much. Jean Harris was portrayed as alternately a cold blooded killer and a woman scorned who shot her lover accidentally because she was doped up on a pills. The truth must lie somewhere in the middle.
I liked the way the characters gave testimonials (Brett Butler was hilarious), and the script was very well done. The dialogue was at times a bit silly, but not overly insulting. Overall, I would give Mrs. Harris an 8 out 10.
looking over some of the other comments here, i was confused. how could
such a sophisticated treatment of a tabloid nightmare attract such
vitriol? i just did not understand the response. so i started looking
at some of the other movies people who've commented on this one like
and after the third time i saw DOMINO get a rave in a user comment
profile i stopped reading. this is why over the years i have not been
moved to put my mark on IMDb, but this just made me mad. not every
movie is for everyone and people who are looking for something a little
out of the ordinary end up bypassing movies like this because a person
whose taste is not in sync with a movie like MRS. HARRIS trashes it on
a site where everybody and anybody thinks they are critics.
all opinions are valid. i'm not saying they're not. we should stick to our opinions and not present our imperfect understanding of what goes in to making a movie as the bible truth.
that said, i'll throw my two cents into the ring. MRS HARRIS takes a great many chances with narrative style, tone, blurring the line between fact and fiction and asking us to reconsider the boundaries of things like brutality, masochism, and how movies usually present things like murder. it's for me as much a movie about how we are conditioned to watch movies about relationships and violence as anything else.
the performances are really incredible, the best i've seen from many of these actors. for people to say the direction and writing are bad is really an injustice. it's a wonderful script, sharp, intelligent, sad and so horribly funny. that's the point, i believe, that the moves from black comedy to drama are done on purpose. it's too carefully made to be anything other than that. with performances like the ones from bening, kingsley, leachman and many others, how anybody can say the direction is bad is beyond me. also the music, the choice of songs, is first rate, the photography and the costumes are, too.
is it a perfect movie? no, it's not, but it's an exciting one that pushes more than a few boundaries and for me that rates an 'excellent.' i haven't seen any perfect movies and i hope i never do because when i do i will stop watching.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Such is the thing which tangles out emotions and makes nervous wrecks
out of our erstwhile model citizen facade. Jean Harris, a competent
woman of society, was faced with that insurmountable challenge: the
slippery Casanova she was attached to.
The events were the talk of the town back when they occurred in 1980. Jean Harris was on trial for the murder of Dr. Herman Tarnower, a crime she denied having any involvement with but one which put her behind bars for 13 years. While there is no doubt that she did kill Dr. Tarnower, MRS. HARRIS focuses on the events that brought these two disparate people together.
Jean Harris' world is one of bright tones, colors, and superficial happiness. She at times seems to be quite ahead of her own times and is as sharp as a tack. But all this was a clever facade which hid a neediness that only required that particular person to bring to light. Tarnower, a man who makes no effort to hide his smooth operator character, comes into her life and takes root there but makes. You would think he'd at least have some decorum in hiding his affairs but he throws them right at Harris -- for almost 14 years -- who is determined to stand by him no matter how much it hurt her moral integrity and caused her eventual meltdown.
This situation is crucial for many women who mirror their happiness in the man whom they are involved with: neither of them see anything else out there, hence the point of director Phyllis Nagy in having these lovely, glowing tones. Harris exists and so does the world around her. All is pitch-perfect to a giddy point, it's like viewing a version of THE STEPFORD WIVES. Once Tarnower pushes her one too many times -- like a cat teasing an otherwise deceptive mouse -- the whole image becomes a sick grey and Harris ages years before our eyes, looking dead, like a bag lady on crack. Bening is remarkable as usual in shaving off her glamor to portray both sides of the moon, often in the same scene. She makes Jean Harris' fears and wrangled emotions come alive and her moments with Kingsley are the best in the film. As a matter of fact, they are the film. Kingsley is the puppet master playing her with hints of sadism. His reaction to a Happy New Year's party in which she tells him, "Instead of focusing on hurting other women, why don't you focus on hurting just me?" is priceless. All I could say was, "No wonder she did him in. I'd have done him myself." MRS HARRIS, despite what other critics say, does not move too fast. I felt its pace was easy as a matter of fact. It wouldn't have hurt if the cinematography would have gone darker as Harris and Tarnower's verbal tangles went for the worse, but it's a minor complaint. Being an HBO-produced drama it allows itself to be viewed and enjoyed. Watch Ellen Burstyn in a teeny-tiny cameo, though. She played Jean Harris herself twenty-five years ago herself in another made-for-TV movie called THE PEOPLE VS. JEAN HARRIS. Also noteworthy is Cloris Leachman playing a she-dog of a sister to Kingsley and hating Bening all the way through.
The incident in which this HBO film is based upon, was fodder for the
sensational press during the time it was front page news. Phyllis Nagy
adapted the material for the screen, as well as directed. Ms. Nagy
makes a point for not taking sides in the way this tale is presented.
Jean Harris plays the most important part since, after all, she was the
only one that lived to tell her story. How much of it is fiction, and
how much it is true?, let the viewer arrive at his own conclusion.
The basic problem with this ambitious production is the casting of the two principal characters. Annette Benning, obviously acting on the text Ms. Nagy wrote, comes across as a silly woman. We don't get to see a dignified Jean Harris, or at least the woman one saw in pictures, and on the television news. Ms. Benning is a good actress, as she has proved herself in other films. Jean Harris, alas, is not one of the best roles she has played.
Ben Kingsley, the wonderful English actor, plays Dr. Herman Tarnower, the victim of Jean Harris' jealousy. Mr. Kingsley's take on this doctor is not convincing. His Dr. Tarnower comes across as a man who had a roving eye for attractive women of a certain class, which is what made him fall for Mrs. Harris, to begin with. According to Ms. Nagy, this doctor had an indecisive nature paying more attention to his mother when she bluntly questions why is he marrying the poor Mrs. Harris.
The opening credits show us how other women, at least in film noir, have dealt with men their own way. What Ms. Nagy's screen play does is to take the viewpoint that maybe Mrs. Harris didn't intend to kill Dr. Tarnower, at all, when the facts of the case tell us she fired a few shots during that fatal encounter.
Despite two strong lead actors in Ben Kingsley and Annette Benning, Mrs
Harris flops. The tone of the script is the problem. It should combust
at the end after a slow, almost unbearable build-up of tension. The
audience should FEEL Jean Harris' rage, frustration, and hopelessness.
Instead, we're supposed to laugh. The script is written as farce, not
drama. Good drama can contain cynical humour and pathos, as long as
it's not dominated by either one. Then it's not drama. I'm sure
Hollywood bigwigs said to the poor scriptwriter, "no one wants to watch
a tragic love-story between two fiftyish neurotics, even if the broad
murders the guy in the end." Of course, the producers would be too
young to remember the case itself. So, they took the easy route and
made the autumn romance a farce. They sporadically threw in some booty,
and the murder as teasers to make the movie bearable to watch.
Yup, they missed the boat with this one.
I don't get how some people are slamming this film as amateur and just
plain bad! I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival and it was one of the
better films I saw. Annette and Ben were BOTH wonderful. Ben portrayed
narcissistic very well and Annette portrayed an elegant sophistication
coupled with utter desperation that was fantastic.
The style of the film was at times pleasantly campy and took on a docu-drama feel with the "interviews" with friends and family. Cloris Leachman was hysterical.
If you go into this film expecting a very historical, totally dramatic telling of the story, you are starting off on the wrong foot.
The film starts with portraying Jean Harris's account of the night in question and finishes with the prosecution's account of what occurred that night. Which is true - who knows? Watch this film with an open mind. It's a trip.
I looked forward with some anticipation to watching this film Saturday.
What a disappointment. The kindest thing I can say is that the movie is
really boring. The dialog was dull and unnatural. The actors seemed
miscast. There were elements of humor, but not enough to make the film
a parody. Annette Bening's voice was distractingly strange.
The fake accents were not convincing. The story itself was told in an interesting way, but the story was dull, the characters were not sympathetic. It's probably important to LIKE someone in a story.
I normally count on HBO to give us really good films -- entertaining movies on interesting topics, well acted, and compelling. Sadly, this particular film failed on everything except the topic, which I did think would be interesting.
So, save your time. Opt for another film more deserving of your attention.
MRS. HARRIS is an HBO dud movie, and that is primarily because of the
content of the story, the writing, the direction, and the waste of some
fine actors' time. Based on a book by Shana Alexander adapted for the
screen and directed by Phyllis Nagy, the story relates in fractured
pieces between a murder scene, a trial and flashbacks the pathetic
story of the death of Dr. Herman Tarnower (a wasted Ben Kingsley) the
Scarsdale Diet author/doctor/womanizer at the hands of Mrs. Jean Harris
(Annette Bening) a upwardly climbing school marm who becomes Tarnower's
live in lover and addicted to his prescribed drugs. Her life is plagued
by Tarnower's inability to keep his apparent elephantine genitals (this
is made clear in an extended ridiculously inane segment in a locker
room!) in his pants and eventually her own shaky self perception leads
her to a suicide attempt that results in Tarnower's murder. The story
is based on fact so there is no giving away an ending.
The only reason to watch this bit of tripe is Annette Bening who is such a gifted actress that she can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear - and this screenplay is definitely the latter. A surprising squandering of money is obvious in the casting of bit parts to fine actors such as Cloris Leachman, Brett Butler, Ellen Burstyn, Mary McDonnell, Phillip Baker Hall, Chloë Sevigny, etc. Many have only one line! Otherwise this is a one of those films that relies on media blitz spectacle posing as a worthy story to create a movie. A must miss - except for Bening. Grady Harp, February 06
If you look at this movie as humorous you'll soon see that it is a very dark comedy. It is sometimes sly and subtle, sometimes almost burlesque(the locker room scene) but always not taking itself too seriously. "We never fought except about the use of the subjunctive!" C'mon. I think Ben Kingsly always kept the comedy aspects of his character in mind and played it very broadly. This movie has what must be by far the most oddly matter-of-fact murder scene ever filmed. I think if you are old enough to remember when this was on the news it will enhance your appreciation of it. Watching people thought to be upper class brought low has been fodder for comedy since theater began.
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