Dark Obsession is neither very dark nor very obsessive, but that does not disqualify it. On the contrary, all the fools and fops, snips and snobs you recall from British manor-house dramas past seem to have been coaxed out of retirement for one last go, and you're bound to enjoy this detestable array of familiar types -not least because they're played by new actors. Once again, they verbally claw each other to shreds with great aplomb. Once again, they overdress for dinner, swill vintage champagne, and act badly. Once again, they represent the last gasp of Empire in the final days of the twentieth century: While making a show of their decorum, they resort to the foulest barbarisms.
Witness the centerpiece in this sturdy amalgam of sexual tension and class warfare, the feckless young aristocrat Sir Hugo Buckton. Portrayed by Dublin's gift to the movies, Gabriel Byrne (the oft-battered mobster of Miller's Crossing), Sir Hugo is a classic English ruin - a polo-playing loafer whose title earns him a do-nothing job with an old school chum's London investment house, an insecure husband obsessed by lust, ever more convinced that his beautiful middle-class wife is conducting an illicit affair.
Indeed, the air fairly sizzles around Lady Virginia Buckton (L.A. Law's Amanda Donohoe), and she draws the attentions of her husband's friends. But are his dark suspicions justified? Or is he a paranoid loser armored only by the decrepit family portfolio? When Hugo, deep into the Johnnie Walker Black and accompanied by his pals, runs over and kills a rich woman's cook in a deserted London street, the plot takes an ominous turn. In the glare of the headlights, after all, his victim resembles no one so much as his wife.
Meanwhile, out at the dank ancestral mansion of Hugo's parents, rookie British director Nick Broomfield plays out the deeper, more satirical drama of Dark Obsession among the human leftovers of England's grand epoch - characters straight out of the Evelyn Waugh Academy of Decadence. As Hugo's dotty father Lord Crewne, the wonderful Michael Hordern, now 80, putters absently around the garden and stares vacantly at the sky; but he can still surprise with the occasional bon mot and always shows a healthy appreciation for his daughter-in-law's extraordinary fuselage. Lady Crewne (Judy Parfitt) is a snob of the old school, a doting mother obsessed with manners and appearances even as the whole social structure she so reveres crumbles around her. Egad! The faltering Crewnes' circumstances are now so reduced that unwashed tourists traipse through the house day and night, each paying a fee to gawk. To make matters worse, Hugo's slutty, sneering little sister Rebecca (Sadie Frost) mercilessly tweaks all the family pretensions. When caught in delicto by Hugo, she simply tells her partner, "Let him watch if he wants to."
Despite its NC-17 rating, however, Dark Obsession will probably rate no stars from Pee-wee Herman and his raincoat brigade. This stylish melodrama contains a few steamy glimpses of Hugo and Ginny having their conjugal way with each other, but those flashing simulations hardly constitute anything like a blue movie. Screenwriter Tim Rose Price and director Broomfield, a former documentarian, are far more interested in undressing British society than their characters; they're more concerned with painting a streak of madness in their Hugo, a la Hitchcock or David Lynch, then exposing his privates. These cunning jokesters also dress the angular, dark-haired, notably beaked Byrne in a scarlet military tunic, sit him down so his portrait may be painted, and make of him an ineffectual nut job. Intentionally or not, he comes off in many lights as a reasonable facsimile of Prince Charles. As far as the similarities between Hugo's and Charlie's respective marital troubles go, that's best left to others.
The remaining ingredients in this heady English stew include Struan Rodger as Peter, Hugo's conniving partner, the Rasputin of the piece, and Douglas Hodge, David Delve, and Alexander Clempson as his other old chums, professional soldiers now faced with covering up the fatal hit-and-run and, for the most part, all too happy to do it. Decked out in comical fur hats, one twit asks another about the dead cook: "I say, did you ever taste her cheese souffle?"
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This is not exactly Monty Python stuff - Broomfield's tone is graver than that - but the edge of satire he brings to his melodrama keeps it buoyant in unexpected ways. Even as Hans Zimmer's ominous score warns us of impending doom at every turn, the moviemakers lighten the load with wry jokes, little observations on the follies of class-bound life, well-placed digs at pomp.
As a result, the easily manipulated Hugo comes off as more foolish than tragic or frightening in the end, as a side show to a circus of decadence. Little matter. By the time we waltz into the absurd grand ball honoring overheated little Rebecca and on to its appalling climax, we've gotten powerful doses of stale English manners and grinding hypocrisy. And in those we can delight.
Directed by Nick Broomfield; written by Tim Rose Price; with Gabriel Byrne, Amanda Donohoe, Michael Hordern, Struan Rodger, Judy Parfitt, and David Delve. Rated NC-17.
Opens Friday at the Astor, 4120 Laguna St, Coral Gables, 445-0202.