MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Damage': A High-Class Steamy Soap

TIMES FILM CRITIC

It's not always the best material that brings out the best in actors. Sometimes the most slick and insubstantial of stories can so involve and inspire performers that, returning the favor, they make the narrative deeper, more sophisticated and satisfying than it would otherwise be. Such is the case with "Damage" (at the Music Hall), which offers fine acting in the hypnotic service of a steamy tale that could have stepped right out of an episode of "The Young and the Restless."

Of course, "Damage's" pedigree is much more impressive than a mere soap. A first novel by well-connected British writer Josephine Hart, it was prestigiously published, became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic, and drew into its orbit director Louis Malle, playwright-director David Hare as screenwriter and an excellent cast headed by Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche and Miranda Richardson.

Working together with great seriousness of purpose and a considerable amount of skill, this team has turned "Damage" into high-class entertainment, carefully controlled, beautifully mounted and played with total conviction. Its lurid soul may have more in common with Jackie Collins than Jane Austen, but its passionate nature and convincing performances can't help but draw you in.

The teaming of Malle, a director who has brought sensitivity to stories as diverse as "Atlantic City" and "Au Revoir, Les Enfants," with a more polished, schematic writer like Hare, best known for his play and the subsequent screenplay for "Plenty," may have seemed like an odd combination. But in fact these two and everyone else on "Damage" seem to have understood exactly the kind of project this was and worked with what feels remarkably like a single mind to get the job done.

With a title reminiscent of the name of a trendy perfume, "Damage" could just as well have been called "Obsession" with little loss of effectiveness. Its story line of passion taken to the limit and beyond does have something of the Calvin Klein ad about it, except that Klein never had actors this accomplished to get his message across.

Jeremy Irons, for openers, stars as Stephen Fleming, M. P. First glimpsed smoothly at his ease among the movers and shakers of Britain's Parliament, he is a junior minister who seems absolutely assured of greater things to come. Wealthy, successful, a man who does things well and knows it, he has two children and what seems to be a still vibrant relationship with his wife, Ingrid (Miranda Richardson).

Then, almost immediately, everything changes. Stephen stays for one extra drink at a boring diplomatic reception and into the room walks Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche). With her severe haircut and dark silk suit contrasting nicely with a palpable air of sensuality, she immediately exchanges a look with Stephen that could fry bacon. But Anna, complete with seductive French accent, is not just the standard issue other woman; she is, Stephen finds out at once, the brand-new serious girlfriend of his son Martyn (Rupert Graves).

Do either Stephen or Anna care? No, they do not. Caught in the grasp of a whirlwind, they waste almost no time in going at it hammer and tongs, engaging in frenzied wordless coupling on the bedroom floor, the kitchen sink, even once making use of the doorway of a convenient church. It is classic amour fou, an all-consuming mad love that has no connection to the mundane or the everyday and needs no reason for being. It simply is.

Living this kind of triple life, deceiving both his wife and his son and having to endure, as Martyn and Anna get inexplicably closer, excruciatingly duplicitous family outings, is as hard as it sounds on Stephen. A man who has never experienced this kind of out-of-control emotion before, he understandably longs for some kind of structure in his life and soon develops bags under his eyes the size of the Titanic.

Anna, however, does not want things tidied up. She tells Stephen that she had a brother who adored her and in fact committed suicide out of that obsessive love. Devastated though she was by that incident, she quietly reminds Stephen that "damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive." Just how dangerous, and just how much of a survivor, is what "Damage" is all about.

While this premise is obviously more pulpy than profound, the three leads bring an assurance and involvement to their roles that is something to see. Though Irons is rather making a career out of playing men tormented by their lives, his anguish and helpless fervor are exceptionally well done. Binoche, last seen in a very different role in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," is exactly right as a passionate, unfathomable woman whose gaze and actions flinch from nothing. And Richardson of "The Crying Game" has some devastatingly potent scenes of her own as well.

Currently rated R (for strong sexuality and language), "Damage" was at one time rated NC-17 though its sex scenes are mostly on the discreet side as far as exposed flesh goes. Yet the film still carries an erotic charge, not due to what's shown as much as to the involvement the actors bring to the scenes. Melodramatic as this story tends to be, the principals manage to play it with unflinching belief, and their reality remains at the core of all of "Damage's" artifice, drawing us in and making us believe.

'Damage'

Jeremy Irons: Stephen Fleming

Juliette Binoche: Anna Barton

Miranda Richardson: Ingrid

Rupert Graves: Martyn

Ian Bannen: Edward

Leslie Caron: Elizabeth

Released by New Line Cinema. Director Louis Malle. Producer Louis Malle. Screenplay David Hare, based on the novel by Josephine Hart. Cinematographer Peter Biziou. Editor John Bloom. Costumes Milena Canonero. Music Zbigniew Preisner. Production design Bryan Morris. Art director Richard Earl. Set decorator Jill Wuertier. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (strong sexuality, language).

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