Picks and Pans Review: Dead Gorgeous

updated 07/14/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

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Critic's Choice

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Hitchcock fans will discern echoes of Strangers on a Train in this droll Mystery! adaptation of a 1989 novel by British author Peter Lovesey (who cowrote the script). But here it's two old friends, not strangers, who get enmeshed in a plot to kill each other's mate. When vixenish Antonia Ashton (Helen McCrory) encounters mousy Rose Bell (Fay Ripley) on a London sidewalk in 1946, they learn they're both trapped in unhappy marriages—Antonia to a wealthy and insufferably dull business tycoon, Rose to a cheating, penny-pinching cretin who abuses her verbally and physically. Feigning concern for Rose's plight, Antonia convinces the battered wife she'd be much better off as a widow—then makes her one by cold-bloodedly engineering a fatal "accident" for Rose's husband. But then Antonia, anxious to move to America with her younger lover, a studly physics professor, wants a certain favor in return. Will Rose come through—or will she wilt?

Though the twisty black comedy veers occasionally into mordant farce (the kind in which a corpse is dragged up a flight of stairs in one scene, only to be hauled back down a couple of scenes later), it's redeemed by the lead performances. Ripley sublimely conveys Rose's repressed pleasure upon hearing of her louse of a spouse's demise, and McCrory has a smashing good time as scheming Antonia. At one point, seeking out her boyfriend at his health club, she brazenly strides through a locker room full of naked men. It's hard to hate a villainess as cheeky as that.

BOTTOM LINE: A howdunit to die for

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