Picks and Pans Review: Mrs. Harris

updated 02/20/2006 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/2006 01:00AM

HBO (Feb. 25, 8 p.m. ET)
DRAMA

Just a few weeks after Judy Davis whooped it up as murderess Sante Kimes in Lifetime's A Little Thing Called Murder, Annette Bening stars in another weird, dark satire about a woman notoriously on the verge. She plays Jean Harris, the prim headmistress who spent nearly 12 years in jail for the 1980 shooting death of her straying lover, Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower. The tone here can be offputtingly strange: brittle, flinty yet over the top. (Cloris Leachman, in particular, plays Tarnower's sister with reptilian ripeness. A hoot.) But Ben Kingsley makes a convincingly seductive brute of the womanizing doctor. And Bening, who has the bitter, mellow voice of a swan that's given up hope of ever flying again in moonlight, is quite moving. Shortly before trying to purchase a gun, Harris sits alone in her car, brooding on suicide. "Most people get used up and spat out by life pretty quickly," Bening says in voice-over, "but they don't have a clue it's happening. I was born with all the clues. And I was cursed with the singular ability to watch all the clues play out."

It's a crystallizing moment: a woman of tremendous self-knowledge about to cede self-control.

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