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]

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