Killing Me Softly (18)

Review by Jack Foley

FEW films have arrived on UK screens off the back of such a critical mauling as Killing Me Softly, yet acclaimed Chinese director Kaige Chen's Hollywood debut seems already to be a strong contender for one of the worst movies of the year.

Based upon the equally-acclaimed best-selling novel from journalist couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (released under the author's name, Nicci French), the movie stars Heather Graham as a conservative woman who abandons her secure existence for the chance for some hot sex with Joseph Fiennes' mysterious mountaineer and a relationship which, ultimately, threatens her very existence.

But whereas French's novel has been described by many as an erotic and suspense-filled psychological thriller, which poses the question of whether Fiennes' hero is, in fact, a cold-blooded killer, the movie becomes lost amid an avalanche of laughable sex scenes, ridiculous scenarios and clumsy acting; all of which create an amusing but instantly forgettable experience.

So what went wrong? Chen, in particular, seems a highly unlikely contender for the worst movie of the year honour, given that he took on the project off the back of work such as Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin.

Part of the problem lies in the movie's translation from page to screen, as several of the supporting characters have been removed, while the ending has been changed completely - now resembling something that Scooby Doo would have been proud of solving.

The film also attempts to cram too much plot into too small a time-frame, accounting for some huge lapses in logic and some truly unbelievable scenarios (Fiennes proposes to Graham, for example, just after beating a would-be mugger to a pulp inside a phone box).

So while much is made of the torrid sex scenes - and, believe me, there are plenty of them (!) - Chen seems less interested in finding out what really makes the characters tick, thus leaving audiences baffled as to why Graham would possibly risk everything just to be with Fiennes possible killer, albeit with a trim physique.

That the pair click over one exchanged glance at a pedestrian crossing also raised several sniggers at the advanced screening - for it is hardly the criteria for some serious clothes-ripping only minutes later!

Burdened with such unworkable plot points, the stars themselves frequently look lost; with Graham especially unsympathetic as the ditsy heroine with no clothes on who allows herself to become Fiennes' sex toy (she is tied to a table, stripped in the snow and trussed up with silk ribbons for a spot of asphyxiation bondage, but still comes back for more!).

Fiennes cuts a suitably sinister would-be psycho but does little to suggest the ambiguity contained within the novel's version of the character, while the likes of Natasha McElhone, as Fiennes overprotective sister, are simply too caricatured to be believable.

On the plus side, Chen's direction is constantly bright and creative, making good use of some London locations and the mountaineering sequences, while proceedings seldom become boring, if only because they amuse so much.

But given that this was supposed to be an intense, disturbing and erotic character study from a proven director, it is tremendously disappointing to be able to class it with Britney Spears' Crossroads as one of the year's unlikeliest comedies - albeit with the added bonus of seeing the former Miss Felicity Shagwell, umm, shagging well!