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*** 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.
This one-sided retelling of the sensational murder trial was a total
waste of talent. It is galling to see Sir Ben Kingsley wasting his time
in this "Woman as victim" soap opera. Dr. Tarnower was portrayed as a
cruel, sadistic womanizer wiping his feet on the poor schoolmistress.
Jean Harris was portrayed as a tragic victim driven to desperation by
her lover's cruelty. At least they did mention that she had walked out
on her husband before meeting Dr. Tarnower.
The film ignored the fact that Dr. Tarnower was a confirmed bachelor and did not want children, and had told Jean Harris right at the beginning. He apparently was quite happy to wine, dine, and take his lady friends to social occasions and on trips to exotic locations as long as they did not expect him to marry them. Unfortunately, Jean wanted the goodies AND marriage. Had they married, she would probably have been throughly miserable.
As the diet book became a best seller and he became a celebrity doctor, Jean may have felt she was being left behind, especially as she was being passed over for promotion at the school. The similarity to the murder of successful playwright Joe Orton by his companion of many years, Kenneth Halliwell struck me. Orton was murdered in a fit of jealousy by Halliwell who's career was not taking off, while Orton was the celebrated darling of swinging London.
The film briefly skipped over a 14 year relationship and a lengthy trial. I just wish that we could have seen more of Dr. Tarnower's side of the story, and a little of Jean Harris's sojourn in prison.
and anyone with an IQ over 50 will agree about the results of this.
A great story deracimated by a Hollywood studio (yet again) underestimating their audience.
Annette Bening, Sir Ben Kingsley, Frances Fisher, Frank Whaley, and other talented artists again prove one thesis I have: The most perfect, flawless actor cannot transcend bad writing, and inferior product.
This is proof. We need a re-make(soon). Mrs. Harris was a brilliant, over-achieving woman who had an obsessive relationship with Dr. Tarnower. The relationship was complex, and she surely did not act and speak like a brainless plebeian, as she is portrayed in this film. Nor, I am sure, was Tarnower as obviously repulsive. Why is it Hollywood has screenwriters who cannot comprehend intellectuals?. Perhaps they should read the New York Times Book Review at least one time a year, before they propose to understand people who grew up with education, writing, and achievement as a cornerstone, rather than as an aside to the Rolls Royce parked in the garage. Tiresome and ridiculous. 2/10. accomplishment.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Mrs. Harris, like many movies, has both good and bad aspects to it. I went into this thinking it would either be an extraordinary film or absolutely awful. I was wrong on both guesses. The movie is above average but not great although there are certainly some great elements to it.
First the positives. Annette Benning and Ben Kingsley are cast in the main roles. Now just that fact alone will probably encourage some people, who ordinarily wouldn't be interested in this type of film, to give it a viewing. And Benning and Kingsley do not disappoint. Both of them deliver very powerful performances, particularly Benning who in my opinion is one of the top actresses working today. No matter what type of character she plays she always makes you forget she is Annette Benning. And this performance is no different.
The combination of Kingsley and Benning together on screen elevates this movie considerably. Both of them are able to play their roles with conviction and believability. The movie and it's two leads, were excellent at showing the relationship from the happy beginning, the problems that came up, and the downward spiral. They were also excellent in really painting a portrait of both these people and tapping into the emotion element of who they were and the red flags that started to come up that were able to show the viewer they were on a collision coarse. Although the movie sometimes seemed made for television in a lifetime channel kind of way, those moments did not last, because Benning and Kingsley were around to prevent that and they were throughly convincing as a screen couple. They never resorted to theatrics and played their roles with a naturalness that one very rarely sees in this type of film.
Something else that must be mentioned is the great use of music in the movie. Now a lot of movies have music in them but it's the rare film that can use music in an effective way. That element was done very well here.The "Color my world" scene in particular stood out to me. It's just not often that a movie is that good in knowing what musical selections work that well, and this movie did. Kudos to whoever selected the music.
So with the great performances, the great music choices and the photography which was good as well, that's enough to make the movie watchable. Unfortunately it doesn't ever cross the line to being a "Great" movie and that's largely because of the editing, sequences of scenes, and flow of the picture in general.
I really thought the editing was rather choppy and think the story would have been told much better without all the flashbacks. The whole thing with the supporting cast talking to the camera has been done in other movies, sometimes done well, most notably in the excellent film "To Die For" where it really worked. But it doesn't work here. We don't see nearly enough of any of the supporting cast and most frustrating was not being able to see either of the two leads interact with almost anybody except each other.
I am sure I'm not the only one who would have liked to see more of their relationships with other people and we didn't really get to see that. The editing was off and there was WAY to much retelling of the night of the murder. That DID seem exploitative and after awhile it was like: how many times do they need to show us bullets raining out in the rain soaked night? That was how the movie started(to much to fast if you ask me) and those scenes took away from the film and there was to much time devoted to the same scene.
The scene of Ben Kingsley in the locker room was honestly rather strange but I suppose I liked it. It sure was different. Mrs. Harris isn't what I would call a great movie but at times it did have it's moments and probably would have had even more if certain things were fixed a bit. I would call it an above average film that falls short of being great but is definitely worth a look. My vote's 8 of 10.
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