Jean Harris made international headlines in 1980 for killing her on again off again lover and fiancée. Of course, such crimes are rather commonplace and would hardly merit all the attention let alone a feature film. The victim, however, in this case, was the famous Dr. Herman “Hi” Tarnower, better known to you and me as the “Scarsdale Diet Doctor”. The film claims to base its script on actual testimony from the well publicized trial. While this may in principle be true, the tale is obviously intended as a satire. T…e style very much lends itself to camp and black comedy. The murder is really the punch line to a very long joke. The testimonials are more like short theatrical vignettes. The feel is more like a staged production than a film. Even if the accuracy claims can be believed at all, they are most certainly exaggerated liberally. The story is obviously slanted heavily toward Jean Harris’ version of events. Given the title, I suppose this might be somewhat appropriate, if the filmmakers didn’t make her into some kind of a hero in the supplemental feature.
Mrs. Harris would quite honestly be a total loss if not for the performances of its two stars, Ben Kingsley and Annette Bening. Both deliver marvelous over the top performances that don’t feel so over the top. Kingsley in particular is devilishly great in his self absorbed role. Bening plays a convincing victim. Unfortunately even these performances can’t bring this film to anything more than camp. Harris contended she planned on killing herself and not Dr. Tarnower. Her explanation that the shots were the result of a struggle form the premise of the film as unrealistic as four shots from a struggle can be. Another unreal moment occurs when the detective allows Harris to wash her blouse in the cell sink after her arrest. I guess Nagey hasn’t watched too many episodes of CSI.
Mrs. Harris is presented in a clean 1.78:1 widescreen transfer fitted to your 16X9 screen. Colors are realistic. Although nothing in this transfer stands out, there are few to no flaws either. I couldn’t detect print or compression artifacts of any kind. Black levels are mostly average with enough detail to be convincing. Flesh tones are pretty much reference, and a few colors tend to stand out more than others. Reds are dynamic at times, particularly on one of the couple’s nights out on the town. From carpets to costumes to roses, a parade of rich reds is the most memorable showcase in this transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is pretty average. Dialogue is always clear and center. The period songs tended to be a little loud at times, but they were crisp, clean recordings. I didn’t really hear much in the way of surround usage except perhaps during the climatic rainstorm. Your sub is pretty much useless to you for this film.
There are two commentaries on this film. By far the most entertaining is with the two stars. While Kingsley has little to say, Bening is obviously quite proud of the work. I was made a little uncomfortable with her obvious sympathies for Harris, the real person.
The second commentary is more informative but far less entertaining. Phyllis Nagey, who wrote and directed the piece, offers far too many lags of silence. At times it was easy to forget you were listening to a commentary. She did a nice job of defending the style and bias of the film, although I don’t really buy any of it.
“Mrs. Harris For The Record: Firsthand Accounts” The clips and interview pieces really point out just how strong the bias of the film and more importantly its filmmakers is toward Jean Harris. I get the idea they were trying to create a folk hero of sorts. A few interviews from various years are provided from the real Jean Harris who pretty much repeats what we’re being told over and over again by the film. “There was no murder.” To make a halfhearted attempt at balance, the trial’s judge and prosecutor offer their “she’s guilty” counterpoint.
What can I say? The film might have some small entertainment value, but I’m afraid it speaks to a larger issue. When films tend to sympathize with such characters from the real world, are we sending any kind of a message? I don’t know the answer to that, but this film just didn’t quite sit well with me. Perhaps a more acknowledged fictionalized version of the tale would have been more appropriate. Still… “Truth is interesting enough; who needs fiction?”
Special Features List
- Commentary by Annette Benning, Ben Kingsley, and writer/director Phyllis Nagy
- “Mrs. Harris For the Record: Firsthand Accounts”