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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Dark Obsession' Targets England's Upper Classes

July 12, 1991|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Disregard "Dark Obsession's" trite movie-of-the week title: Lurking behind it is a nifty drama of psychological suspense marking the fiction feature debut of director Nick Broomfield, best known for collaborating with Joan Churchill on such well-respected documentaries as "Tattooed Tears" and "Soldier Girl."

The time is post-Falklands, but within the confines of a venerable London men's club--dark wood paneling, gleaming silverware, obsequious servants--it could just as easily be the post-Crimean War era. A group of aristocratic young men, all of them former or current guardsmen, are enjoying an evening of drunken revelry and afterward are involved in a hit-and-run accident.

Written by Tim Rose Price, "Dark Obsession" (at the Fine Arts) proves not to be the usual study of guilt. The car's driver, a nobleman (Gabriel Byrne), claims not to feel any guilt at all. Instead, he is consumed by jealousy over his breathtaking wife (Amanda Donohoe), a woman of poise and overwhelming sensuality who is about to launch a magazine with the help of a handsome Argentine. He is so convinced that the two are having an affair that in the grips of obsession (and drink) he deliberately drives into the accident victim, imagining at the moment she was his wife.

It's been such a long time since the "angry" British playwrights and filmmakers of the '60s that it's surprising to watch today an otherwise conventionally made film energized by such an intense a rage at the follies and hypocrisies of the British upper class. As Byrne's self-indulgent Sir Hugo starts to disintegrate under the pressure of his growing obsession, the film skewers the corruption of the aristocracy, a class that is bound to close ranks no matter what.

The film offers an array of roles for typically fine British actors, who play them with relish. Byrne, whose resemblance to Prince Charles in this film surely cannot be accidental, brings to his nobleman a dark, self-destructive passion. Donohoe subtly suggests that it is the lot of most beautiful women to endure a lack of trust on the part of those who love them. Struan Rodger is properly slimy as a Byrne associate eager to exploit the nobleman's predicament. Douglas Hodge is splendid as the one man in Byrne's group with a conscience. Michael Hordern is Byrne's sweet elderly father who still has an eye for the ladies, and Judy Parfitt is Byrne's mother, a formidable snob.

Much of "Dark Obsession" (rated NC-17 for some audacious love scenes) takes places at Duncombe Park, one of the England's stateliest mansions, serving as Sir Hugo's family seat. Except for the presence of some roped-off areas, indicating that at times the estate is open to the public, we are left with the feeling that for a century or two life has gone on there unchanged--at least on the surface.

'Dark Obsession'

Gabriel Byrne Sir Hugo Buckton

Amanda Donohoe: Lady Virginia Buckton

Michael Hordern: Lord Crewne

Judy Parfitt: Lady Crewne

A Circle release of a Film Four International and British Screen presentation of a Working Title production. Director Nick Broomfield. Producer Tim Bevan. Screenplay Tim Rose Price. Cinematographer Michael Coulter. Editor Rodney Holland. Costumes Mary-Jane Reyner. Music Stanley Myers, Richard Harvey, Hans Zimmer. Production design Jocelyn James. Art director. Sound John Midgley. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

MPAA-rated NC-17 (considerable sex and nudity).

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