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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Secret Smile (review)

Boyfriend From Hell

If you know any film fans of a certain age — and it’s only ever women I’ve heard say this, so try asking your mom or your grandmother — you might have heard them talk about seeing Richard Widmark in the 1947 flick Kiss of Death and how they could never, ever get past seeing the actor forevermore after that as the psychopath he played there, particularly for the scene in which he kills a wheelchair-bound woman by pushing her down a flight of stairs.
Well, if you love David “Doctor Who” Tennant and don’t want to have to take a toothbrush to your brain to excise images of him as a creep on orders of magnitude both deranged and criminal, then skip Secret Smile, the 2005 British TV miniseries (it aired in the States on BBC America) now available on Region 1 DVD. I bought a copy from the Netherlands or somewhere a while back and have seen it a couple of times now, and the brain-toothbrush gets a major workout every time. Particularly for one scene in which Tennant delivers a line of dialogue that is the spoken equivalent of pushing a defenseless crippled woman down a flight of stairs to her death. I’m not gonna tell you what he says, of course — it’s so outrageous that you’ll never see it coming and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it, but every time I see it I still cannot believe he actually said that, at that particular moment and in that particular context and with such malicious glee. If I weren’t a woman of sound enough mind to know the difference between an actor and the character he’s playing (and alas that there are fans for whom this is something of a challenge), well… then I’d really need that toothbrush.

Tennant plays Brendan Block, pretty much the Worst Boyfriend Ever for 30-ish London architect Miranda Cotton (Kate Ashfield, from Shaun of the Dead). In the early days of their short relationship, he shifts so smoothly from being weird and sinister to being adorable and charming — Tennant’s genius really seems more suited for villains than for heroes — that, like Miranda, you’re not even sure if you saw it. We’re fooled, like she is. Soon enough, though, his true stalkerish colors are shining through, and she dumps him. With this he is not pleased, and embarks upon a plan to bring about heartbreak and ruin to not merely Miranda herself but all those she loves. Seriously, you won’t believe how evil Brendan will get.

Based on a novel by Nicci French, Secret Smile is one of those awful cautionary tales for women that should appall me, as a feminist: Don’t sleep with strangers, all you slutty single career girls, or you’ll get in big big trouble! That’s how Miranda meets Brendan: she picks him up at a party and takes him home and has a wild night with him, and she doesn’t even ask his name till the next morning. The ho. But it’s so wonderfully, cheesily melodramatic, and Tennant is so deliciously disgusting that I love it anyway.

Not suitable for:

• kiddie fans of Doctor Who: they really don’t need to see the Doctor doing the things he does here
• female Whovians of a delicate fan-fiction-writing nature who don’t want their fantasy of the Doctor as the perfect man shattered
• anyone like the poster at the IMDB who is upset over the “copious amount of boozing” featured here: apparently major felonies that would earn you life in prison are fine as long as you don’t have a glass of wine while committing them

David Tennant checklist:

• Scottish accent: yes
• big hair: no
• nudity: yes
• sex: yes
• really bad awful sex that you don’t want to have to think about: ugh, yes
• evil twitching: yes
• manic grinning: yes
• funky geeky T-shirts: yes

[part of my “summer of David Tennant and ‘Hamlet’” series]

MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

posted in:
  • This series was so deeply disturbing because he is so attractive, even when he’s evil. and the ambiguity around his actions (does he really do EVERYTHING she thinks he does) is greater because of his charisma.

    it’s very very good, while being very very wrong. and so is the youtube mashup with That Scene and one with Rose Tyler.

  • I love this miniseries. Brendan is such a far cry from the Doctor. Watching David make him so disgusting and charming at the same time is amazing to see. Definitely not a show for kids.

    It’s wonderful to watch my favorite actors play horrible people. I know that sounds strange, but it shows their acting range. It makes me wonder where they pull that disgusting, horrible character from. Fascinating to watch!

    Cathryn, I just looked up the youtube mashup. You’re so right about it being “very, very good, while being very, very wrong.” I’ve never laughed so hard!

  • Much as I enjoy Tennant, I hate violence in movies or anything close to torture or weird sex, so I’d probably hate this movie. I know British TV can be much weirder than American TV, but the fact that you’ve described a TV show goes beyond weird.

    I’d rather stick to seeing him in Dr. Who or Casanova or Bright Young Things.

    Speaking of seeing dishy British guys on older TV shows, have you ever seen Clive Owen in 1999’s Second Sight? It was part of the Mystery series, and we’re renting it now from Netflix. Highly recommended!

  • Danielle

    Scottish accent + nudity = I’m there.

  • bitchen frizzy

    “Scottish accent + nudity = I’m there.”

    Well, then, in that case you should also check out Mike Myers as Fat Bastard.

  • azindn

    Wonderful to see an actor play against type with such aplomb. Tennant is so excellent in his evil personea that he made me want to stalk him. No, just kidding. This is an tv series that seems a little made for the Lifetime Channel, but the acting and ensemble cast is superior. If Doctor Who is this bad, one would wish the aliens got even more often. He practically hisses with vengence at being thwarted, but psychotic or not, the women seem to be exceptionally stupid. Did they ever think to change the door locks or go to the police. And, mace? Hello. Gullible is not fashionable.

  • NorthernStar

    It’s worth the money purely for That Scene!

    Torchwood, even at its most filthy, didn’t get so utterly (and wonderfully) dirty.

  • Poly in London

    It’s interesting that David Tennant chose to do this just before he started playing the Doctor. Secret Smile was broadcast in the UK about a month before the Christmas Invasion – the Tenth Doctor’s first proper episode. The anticipation for the new Doctor was sky high and the audience was watching Secret Smile in order to see the new Doctor.
    It takes guts challenging people’s expectations like that.

  • MaryAnn

    Torchwood, even at its most filthy, didn’t get so utterly (and wonderfully) dirty.

    No, the thing about that line isn’t that it’s naughty and dirty, it’s how malicious it is. The line itself — what he actually says — in another context, could conceivably be sexy or playful. It’s what that line uttered *in this particular context* says about Brendan that makes it so outrageous.

  • Did they ever think to change the door locks or go to the police. And, mace? Hello. Gullible is not fashionable.
    Not quite sure what you mean here – she tried the police, but they didn’t believe her. I think the point was that he was very seductive, and good at hiding his evil side until it was too late.

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