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Mrs. Harris Reviews

Reviewed By: Brian J. Dillard

The murder of Scarsdale Diet inventor Herman Tarnower could easily have become fodder for a Lifetime TV movie starring, say, Meredith Baxter or Jane Seymour. Luckily for premium cable devotees, it instead inspired this wonderfully tart HBO movie, which subverts docudrama clichés at every turn. In a part as smart and sour as her role in Being Julia was steely and grandiloquent, Annette Bening plays spurned lover/murderess Jean Harris with a lethal combination of self-knowledge and fatalism. Harris never asks to have her romantic hopes raised, but once they are, there's no returning to her previous state of expertly cultivated complacency. As persnickety Dr. Tarnower, Sir Ben Kingsley oozes equal parts charm and condescension. The doctor's carefully articulated rules and regulations provide a perfect defense against other people's expectations. Director/screenwriter Phyllis Nagy teases out these careful characterizations in a playful narrative that bounces between times, perspectives, and moods. If there's a problem with Mrs. Harris, it's that it tries almost too hard to avoid movie-of-the-week boilerplate. The fractured chronology sometimes saps the story of emotional weight, while the amused tone threatens to descend into glibness. On the whole, however, Nagy's approach gains more than it loses, as in the scene where Tarnower's outsize genitalia earns envious stares from the guys in the locker room and voice-over testimonials from his many ex-lovers. This single, amusingly literal sequence tells the audience all it needs to know about this self-satisfied alpha male -- and that's but one example of Mrs. Harris' terrific cinematic shorthand.