Should I Watch..? Damage
What's the big deal?
Damage is a romantic drama film released in 1992 and is based on the novel of the same name by Josephine Hart. One of the last films directed by Louis Malle, the film is about a British government minister who embarks on an obsessive and dangerous affair with his son's girlfriend. The movie stars Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, Miranda Richardson and Rupert Graves. The film developed some controversy at the time due to its love scenes apparently pushing the boundaries for the censors in America, no doubt re-evaluating their guidelines following the release of the much more explicit Basic Instinct earlier that year. The film seems to have become an example of the schism between critics and the general public with opinion sharply divided on the film.
What's it about?
Dr Stephen Fleming is a rising star of the Conservative party, serving as Minister for the Environment and living a privileged life with his wife Ingrid and their teenage daughter Sally. Their adult son, journalist Martyn Fleming, has found himself a new girlfriend and before long, Stephen and Ingrid meet the bewitching Anna Barton who works at the antiques department of Sotherby's Auction House. Stephen is hopelessly captivated by her and Anna appears to share similar feelings for him. Before long, Stephen visits Anna alone at her apartment she shares with Stephen and the two begin a torrid affair.
Despite knowing the risks and the pain it would cause those around them, Stephen and Anna continue to see each other, even though Stephen is initially clueless about her past. With the arrival of her embarrassing French mother Elizabeth Prideaux, Stephen learns that Anna's brother committed suicide when Anna was just fifteen. With his obsession with Anna growing ever stronger, Stephen continues to take greater risks - even travelling to Paris to be with her during a weekend away with Martyn. As the pair become ever more infatuated with each other, tragedy inevitably strikes...
Dr Stephen Fleming, MP
Release Date (UK)
5th February 1993
Academy Award Nomination
Best Supporting Actress (Richardson)
What's to like?
Unusually, I can see both points of view with this film. I can see why the critics enjoyed it, primarily due to the superb performances from the lead cast. Irons, despite looking like a melted waxwork of himself, is actually perfectly cast as Stephen and his desperation and pain at the situation he finds himself in is all too evident. He looks, feels and acts like a man who is driven purely by lust and desire for this mysterious woman. Binoche too is excellent, every inch the bewitching beauty the role requires. But the star performer is Richardson who goes to unassuming and loyal housewife to scorned woman and mourning mother with astonishing ease.
The film is remarkably pretty to watch, giving viewers glimpses of some of the more beautiful parts of London and Paris to savour. Weirdly, it also feels like it actually happened - the Tory government at the time seemed to forever be mired in sex scandals and sleaze, making the story both relevant and believable. This isn't a simple skin-flick like its reputation might suggest - this is a tortured look at how obsession and desire can push even the most sensible and stable of individuals into madness. And you can clearly see that etched into the face of Irons and Binoche when the truth finally comes out.
- According to some reports, Binoche stormed off the set one day after Irons became a bit too physical during some of the love scenes.
- The film had a surprising number of recognisable faces lower down the cast list. Peter Stormare had an early role as Anna's friend Peter Wetzler while Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes appears as a political ally of Stephens. David Thewlis, known to fans of the Harry Potter series as Remus Lupin, also briefly appears as a detective.
- Stephen's chauffeur, Raymond, was played by former Wales international rugby star Ray Gravell. It was only his second ever appearance on the big screen.
What's not to like?
The trouble is, I can also see why there is a lot of vitriol out there from other online critics such as myself - not that I ever consider myself a critic, you understand. The biggest problem comes with the frankly bizarre love scenes between Irons and Binoche. And I do mean bizarre - at times, I couldn't work out if they were Greco-Roman wrestling, performing the Heimlich Manoeuvre and trying to have sex with as many clothes on as possible. Given the all-consuming passion these characters are supposed to have for each other, the love scenes have all the chemistry, warmth and eroticism of a autopsy. These are probably the worst sex scenes ever shot on film and I've seen other equally limp erotic thrillers like Body Of Evidence and Showgirls. They are laughably bad.
The film's attempts at showing the obsession between these two consists primarily of long shots of them staring at each other with no dialogue. Speaking of dialogue, a bit more might have helped with the story. We kinda understand Stephen's point-of-view - he's basically after a quick bunk-up - but what on Earth is Anna's motivation for continuing such a relationship? Is she really that involved that she's happy sleeping with the son and the father and if not, why take the same risks as Stephen? I started to think that maybe she was a spy hoping for some incriminating pillow talk but seeing as Stephen holds one of the least sexy roles in government as an environment spokesman, the best she could have hoped for was some boring chit-chat about recycling.
Should I watch it?
It's a shame that Damage is such a well-performed piece of drama because the hopelessly inept love scenes completely destroy any real chance the film had of being taken seriously. As it is, it's one of those annoying good-films-badly-made that critics will no doubt enjoy but will turn normal audiences right off. The plodding narrative and lack of any chemistry means that this will sadly be written off as a missed opportunity - maybe just stick with the book?
Great For: amateur wrestlers, Richardson's reputation
Not So Great For: pervy teenagers, couples, politicians, anyone looking for excitement or thrills
What else should I watch?
The Eighties and Nineties saw a boom in movies pushing the boundaries when it came to what comes on under the sheets. From steamy film noirs like Body Heat to revenge thriller Fatal Attraction, the bar had been set fairly high before these films started getting more exploitative. The turning point was undoubtedly 1992's Basic Instinct with its bisexual serial killer Catherine Tramell, memorably played by Sharon Stone and turned into a femme fatale for the ages. After that, things went downhill - Showgirls is a notoriously bad film looking at the sleazy world behind Las Vegas' more debauched stage shows while Demi Moore's equally idiotic Striptease does pretty much the same thing. How sexy can anyone look giving Burt Reynolds a lap-dance, I wonder?
These days, eroticism is a rare commodity in movies as it's often confused with gratuitous nudity and sex. If the awful writing and acting behind Fifty Shades Of Grey doesn't put you off then perhaps you'll get more from Blue Is The Warmest Colour, a French coming-of-age film which won the prestigious Palme D'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, in no way connected with the explicit lesbian love scenes in it.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox