Killing Me Softly (2002)

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She loves him . . . but does she really know who he is?
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US, UK / 100 minutes / color / MGM, Montecito, Noelle Dir: Chen Kaige Pr: Lynda Myles, Joe Medjuck, Michael Chinich Scr: Kara Lindstrom Story: Killing Me Softly (1999) by Nicci French Cine: Michael Coulter Cast: Heather Graham, Joseph Fiennes, Natascha McElhone, Ulrich Thomsen, Ian Hart, Jason Hughes, Kika Markham, Amy Robbins, Yasmin Bannerman, Rebecca Palmer, Ronan Vibert, Olivia Poulet.

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A psychological thriller that, while it’s far from a masterpiece, I’d maintain is rather better than it’s usually given credit for.

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Alice (Graham) is an American who’s been in London these past two years working as a designer of CD-ROMs and websites for corporate clients. For six months now she’s lived with her boyfriend, Jake (Hughes), in a relationship that’s become affectionate and comfortable, albeit no longer fiery.

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Jake (Jason Hughes) is a comfortable companion.

One day on the way to work she accidentally touches fingers with a mysterious stranger, mountaineer Adam Tallis (Fiennes), at a pedestrian stop sign, and there’s an instant attraction. Soon they’re in a taxi to the apartment where he’s living—in fact his sister’s—and, once they get there, they promptly engage in mad, wild, frenzied, gymnastic, exuberant, passionate . . . you guessed it.

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The fatal moment when the fingers touch.

That night, having resolved never to repeat the indiscretion, she attempts to kindle the same fires with Jake, but to no avail; and a couple of evenings later, while the poor guy is attempting to watch the football on the telly, she announces she’s going to leave him. Cruel timing on her part—she could at least have waited until the match was over. It’s not so many days later that she and Adam decide impulsively to marry.

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Alice (Heather Graham) rediscovers Adam (Joseph Fiennes) in a bookstore.

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Will Alice (Heather Graham) cross the Rubicon and enter Adam’s apartment?

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Yep.

Although she knows little about him, Adam does have a fairly dramatic backstory. He’s widely regarded as a hero because, on his last trip to the Himalayas, he managed to save six of his companions in the wake of a terrible accident. One of the companions who didn’t survive was a climber called Françoise Colette, with whom he admits he was in love. Others who have climbed with him include Klaus (Thomsen), who has written a book about the ill starred expedition, and Deborah (McElhone), Adam’s sister; when Alice first meets Deborah there’s an awkward interval before she learns that Deborah isn’t another girlfriend. Deborah has a gray cat called Mr. Know-It-All who looks very much like the one currently snoring softly on top of my printer.

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When Alice (Heather Graham) first meets Deborah (Natascha McElhone), she assumes Adam has another girlfriend.

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Mr. Know-It-All.

Alice’s best friend Sylvie (Robbins) tries to persuade her that she’s making a terrible mistake—that she’s abandoning real love for the sake of obsessive sex, but Alice doesn’t care. Much later, when Alice tries to contact Jake, she discovers that Sylvie has moved in with him; the last two people from her old life upon whose friendship she might have counted are now lost to her.

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Sylvie (Amy Robbins) tries to warn Alice of the folly of her course.

Adam and Alice are married in a remote church in Cumbria; afterwards he leads her on a long hike to an even remoter cottage where they’re to spend their honeymoon—but not before he’s snatched the opportunity to photograph her naked in front of a stone angel in the local cemetery. At the cottage, their wild lovemaking takes a turn toward the kinky; and soon we’ll be given the impression that their married love-life includes a fair amount of rough stuff.

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Strange anonymous notes start arriving for Alice, warning her that she knows far too little about Adam and that he has a history of violence. Then a Guardian reporter, Joanna Noble (Bannerman), whom Alice met while Adam was being interviewed by her, phones to let her know that she—Joanna—has received a weird fax. This is from one Michelle Stowe (Palmer), who claims Adam raped her when she was a teen. Pretending to be Joanna, Alice interviews the woman and is unconvinced by her story.

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Journalist Joanna Noble (Yasmin Bannerman) phones Alice with her concerns.

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Michelle Stowe (Rebecca Palmer) tells her story to Alice (Heather Graham).

But she’s more alarmed when she comes across a stash of love letters Adam has hidden behind lock and key, love letters from one Adele Blanchard, in the last of which she tells him she’s leaving him to return to her husband.

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Mrs. Blanchard (Kika Markham) welcomes Alice (Heather Graham), believing her to be Adele’s old friend Joanna.

Alice tracks down Adele’s mum (Markham), who tells her Adele has been missing without explanation for the past eight months; even more alarming, among Adele’s effects is a photo of her posing naked in front of that very same stone angel in Cumbria.

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By now Alice is fairly convinced Adam is a multiple murderer—that he kills any woman who rejects him. Adam’s response to her suspicions is to tie her to the kitchen table—which is I’m sure what we’d all do under the circumstances—but she escapes and, enlisting Deborah’s help, heads for Cumbria . . .

There are some fairly ludicrous moments during the movie, but the general quality of the production—and Patrick Doyle’s urgent soundtrack—carried me past those moments. The denouement in Cumbria, however, was so marred by its implausibilities that it was hard to keep my disbelief suspended. I can’t detail too many of them here without blowing the entirety of the plot’s underpinning, but here’s one: In the depths of winter, ground is rock-hard, so that if you plunge your spade into it you’re likely to pull a muscle rather than see the blade cleave down into the moist, soft earth.

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Ulrich Thomsen as Klaus.

There are plenty of other oddities. (a) Despite being a world-famous mountaineer, whose life must sometimes depend upon his respiratory system, Adam smokes like a chimney. I’ve actually run into a couple of world-famous mountaineers, and unless I’m misremembering they regarded smoking as an absolute no-no. (b) Alice and Adam keep their underwear on at the oddest of moments. (c) Office potato Alice gets into a fight with a lady mountaineer and holds her own pretty well; in real life, mountaineers are strong and mountaineers are fit—as Adam demonstrates fairly early in the movie when he quite easily chases down and beats nearly to death a much larger man who has attempted to mug Alice. (d) It seems to be entirely optional whether or not Alice goes to work. Not only does her boss (Vibert) not seem to mind her frequent absenteeism, he hands her a key assignment.

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What Adam does to muggers.

These are mild bloopers of the sort you expect to find in a direct-to-video (DTV) movie, and it crossed my mind more than once that Killing Me Softly might have been better done as a DTV rather than a classily cast theatrical release. For one thing, had it been a DTV, it might have been a bit shorter and thereby a bit faster-moving; although that’s a cheap shot, the complaint’s not wholly without validity. The sex scenes—the movie doesn’t quite fall into the erotic-thriller category, but it inches close to it—obviously hamper the narrative a bit, but there are other, genuine pacing problems. Again, the cinematography and other production standards make it easy not to notice the occasional lapse in pace, but after the second or third of them I did begin glancing furtively at my watch.

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A terrified Alice (Heather Graham) hides from Adam.

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Adam (Joseph Fiennes) tries to explain himself.

Until the final half-hour or so, Graham gives a rather one-note performance that in fact works quite effectively; she’s a sort of innocent abroad who retains her naivety despite her wild abandon. Only in the final minutes does her character seem to gain any degree of complexity, and even then it’s not much. Fiennes can’t work out whether to be Heathcliff or a figure out of melodrama, while McElhone, as his slightly creepy sister, seems to be going through the motions. There are some nice contributions lower down the cast list, though, such as those from Bannerman, as the Guardian hack, Hughes (best known, perhaps, as Sergeant Ben Jones in the Midsomer Murders series), as the dumped boyfriend, and Robbins as the best friend.

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Cinematographer Michael Coulter clearly loved the Cumbrian landscape.

This is Alice’s story—parts of it she narrates in voiceover to a police officer (Hart)—and the cinematography emphasizes the fact: I lost count of the number of conversations we witness looking over Alice’s shoulder at the other person. In a way, this makes it easier to forgive some of the movie’s improbabilities, in that this is the way she remembers it rather than the way that in reality it necessarily was.

I seem to have been picking all sorts of holes in Killing Me Softly, and there’s no way to pretend that this is other than a very flawed movie. On the other hand, despite everything, it functions quite neatly as a piece of entertainment. And maybe that’s enough.

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On Amazon.com: Killing Me Softly (Unrated Edition)

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12 thoughts on “Killing Me Softly (2002)

  1. This does sound very “late 90s thriller”, doesn’t it? The point where some ingenue meets a mysteriously smouldering man and then rushes off to marry/isolate herself with him is usually where I check out in this kind of thing — there’s suspension of disbelief and there’s…I dunno…sheer idiocy. I may give it a miss, but thanks for another entertaining write-up.

    Though I’ll have you know that Jason Hughes is best known as Warren from This Life thankyouverymuch! And — dammit, John — I’d just managed to move on from Natasha McElhone being easily one of the most beautiful women who ever lived…all that therapy, completely undone…

    • It’s by no means essential viewing, but quite fun if you’re into cheesy thrillers. It’s been panned fairly widely, but I’ve seen lots that are worse.

      *koff* I’ve never even heard of This Life. And I’ve just learned that McElhone is married to Roy Greenslade, which raised my eyebrows.

  2. This did always seem like a movie that might have worked but which had just the wrong talent involved both in front and behind the camera – a wasted opportunity in the main, despite the cast that looks almost as good as the countryside. One imagines they all wished they were making a perhaps more serious, less artificial or anyway genre-defined film as their heart clearly isn’t in it.

    • Certainly there are the makings of a good movie in there (which is why I’m tempted to read the novel to see what its authors made out of the presumably similar ingredients). I hate to saty this, because I always feel I’m sounding like a prig, but I think the movie would have benefited greatly from dialing down the softcore sex and the gratuitous nudity a bit. When Fiennes ties Graham to the kitchen table toward the end it’s difficult not to giggle.

      • I agree with you – some of my favourite films have plenty of sex and nudity (from the 80s I would pick CRIMES OF PASSION, BLUE VELVET and BODY HEAT as being especially good) but most of the time it is handled badly and if there is one thing I hate it is watching something like that and feeling embarrassed by it!

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