Secret Smile Review
The novels of Nicci French – a pseudonym for the team of Sean French and Nicci Gerard – are pleasingly literate, fast-moving, wildly implausible and highly recommended for an uncritical pool-side read. Unfortunately, the mixture of thrills and silliness doesn’t necessarily transfer well to the screen as the eminent Chinese director Chen Kaige discovered when he made his English language debut with an adaptation of the peerlessly daft Killing Me Softly in which Heather Graham was chased about London by a psychotic mountaineer. One of the problems is that psychological motivations which can be closely examined on the page tend to get lost in the space of a two-hour film unless either the adapter is very careful to wedge them in somewhere or the acting is good enough to convince us that what the characters are doing carries some psychological truth. On this latter score, the two-part ITV dramatisation of Secret Smile scores highly. Unfortunately, this doesn’t avoid the silliness factor inexorably winding itself up to 11.
Miranda (Ashfield) is a successful architect suffering from a hopeless addiction to crap boyfriends. At a party, she meets Brendan Block (Tennant) and is immediately struck by his charisma. One thing quickly leads to another and the two strangers share what we are assured is sensational sex – or at least as sensational as the ‘15’ certificate will allow. Certainly, at one point Miranda is either having an orgasm or has accidentally put her finger in a light socket. Over the next few days, Miranda comes to realise that Brendan might actually be a little bit creepy; a suspicion confirmed when he lets himself in to her flat and starts reading her diary from when she was eighteen. Miranda, suddenly overcome by a wave of hitherto unsuspected common sense, dumps him and thinks that their paths will never have to cross again. But a few weeks later, she discovers that her sister has a new boyfriend, who turns out to be none other than the egregious Brendan.
At this point, Brendan comes over as little more than an irritating tit; a touch over-solicitous and slightly controlling when it comes to other people using a steak knife, but otherwise fairly harmless. But this is where David Tennant’s fantastic performance comes into play. He turns Brendan is a phenomenally creepy figure who is always exactly where you least want him to be. Every glance, every softly spoken word and every tiny bit of body language are perfectly judged to turn Brendan from an annoyance into an active threat. The conception of Brendan is pretty weak in terms of characterisation and we’re expected to believe that, without any obvious motivation, he is capable of turning from a minor irritation into a psychotic murderer virtually overnight. But Tennant is good enough in the part to make the shift from minor stalker to killer fairly credible and if the drama works at all, it’s almost entirely due to him.
The rest of the piece doesn’t quite stack up. Miranda – and this is no reflection of Kate Ashfield’s likeable performance - behaves stupidly and annoyingly, handling everything in the least subtle way possible. The more she witters on about how dangerous Brendan is, the more people she alienates and it’s not hard to see why anyone would find her constant whining tiresome. One’s sympathies are entirely with the nice boyfriend who dumps her because she’s become monomaniacal on the subject of her ex-boyfriend. By the time she’s harassing the police and wandering unannounced into Brendan’s flat, you’re wondering whether she ought to be locked up for her own good. Certainly, it’s possible to watch the film and see it from a different perspective, in which case Miranda becomes the paranoid stalker and Brendan the victim. What Brendan can actually be proved to have done before the big climax – when he does admittedly go several leagues overboard - is relatively minor and the rest is all circumstantial and I’m not sure I buy it. What begins as a relatively realistic situation descends very rapidly into melodrama and by the time Miranda is donning a curly wig and pretending to be her deceased best friend, the viewer’s jaw has dropped so far through the floor that it’s burrowing its way into the foundations.
ITV DVD can be usually relied upon to give their dramas a decent basic release and that is very much the case here.
Secret Smile is presented on a dual-layer disc and is split into two episodes which can be watched either all at once or separately. I recommend watching them together as the running time only comes to just over a couple of hours. The 1.85:1 anamorphic image is very acceptable with strong colours, a reasonable amount of detail – although this isn’t consistent – and no problems with grain or artifacting. Much the same goes for the Dolby 2.0 soundtrack – it’s very serviceable but nothing special. Dialogue spreads over the channels but it’s not the most atmospheric of tracks.
There are no extras. Optional English subtitles are available.