Mrs. Harris (2005)

I guess at this point I have to start justifying my Netflix queue, so here goes. I liked Ben Kingsley in Dave and thought he was impressive in Sexy Beast (although I couldn’t get through the movie as a whole), plus HBO Films has a reputation for quality. That’s how I came to see Mrs. Harris. Based on a true story, it stars Annette Bening as the title character, a headmistress who attaches herself to Kingsley’s self-professed “country doctor” Herman Tarnower. Tarnower is less rural sawbones and more egocentric, womanizing publicity hound, and Harris soon finds herself taking a backseat to Tarnower’s pursuit of younger women and his rise to fame with the Scarsdale Diet. As he neglects her (except to write her dubious prescriptions), Harris goes into an emotional tailspin that ultimately drives her, one rainy night, to go to his house with a gun. Before night’s end, Tarnower is dead and Harris is facing murder charges.

I hate Annette Bening. Part of me thinks she keeps choosing to play brittle, needy types who snap in hopes of capturing the Oscar that Hilary Swank denied her the first time; another part of me remembers her staticky, Lifetime-movie “complexity” way back in The American President; neither part of me likes to see her on screen. Mrs. Harris has to accomplish a lot of heavy lifting to get me past that. That it does is due to some strong direction and an interesting script, both by Phyllis Nagy. Was it murder? The movie presents two scenarios: in the opening, the gun goes off as Tarnower tries to wrest it from Harris (the real-life Harris’s story); at the end, Harris arrives at Tarnower’s in a near-fugue state and shoots him in the back out of anger. (In both scenes, after the shooting Bening puts an acquiescent Tarnower to bed. I’d want a ride to the hospital, but the good doctor and I differ on many points.) Thus the movie manages to avoid passing judgment (in real life, she was convicted) without glossing over the details of the case.

The fact is, the Jean Harris of the movie—borderline under a façade of patrician competence—is exactly the kind of role that suits Bening, and the fact that I don’t like that role doesn’t mean she inhabits it poorly. She captures the way emptiness can erode the foundations of a personality until the whole edifice collapses. The sequence where Harris, having been dumped, sends Tarnower a letter by registered mail and then calls him, near tears, to request that he destroy it is exemplary. She knows he’ll have to sign for the letter and, thus, still have some marginal contact with her; by the time she realizes how pathetic and desperate this plan is, it’s too late for her to extricate herself without another flaky gesture. She sees what she is but can’t change it. As Tarnower, Kingsley is both sane and plausibly blind to Harris’s precarious emotional state, and manages to infuriate me even though Harris generally deserves his callous treatment. The movie is packed with familiar faces (Michael Gross has a basically silent role as a society husband; there are also Mary McDonnell, Brett Butler, Lee Garlington, Cloris Leachman, Frances Fisher, Chloe Sevigny, and Philip Baker Hall), but Nagy has the sense to clear the dance floor and let Kingsley and Bening destroy each other unimpeded.

It’s a true story, but I find Mrs. Harris odd in that Tarnower never seems to like Harris all that much. Maybe it’s just that Kingsley applies his smarmy charm equally to Bening and to any other woman Tarnower wants to get naked with. When Tarnower proposes to Harris, it’s like he couldn’t find anything else to do that week; when he backpedals, swearing he loves her but doesn’t want to be married, why doesn’t he back out all the way? My best interpretation is that he liked having a long string of ladies on his line too much to let her go completely. If that’s the case, then frankly, they both got what they deserved.

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