The streamer’s new attempt at an erotic thriller series occasionally titillates but can’t find a real emotional anchor.
Certain events dig so deep into our culture that they define many subsequent examples of the form. Watergate has led to decades of any possibly notable scandal receiving a -gate suffix. Any British band with pop-rock sensibilities often spends a year or two followed by the question, “the next Beatles?”. And, currently, any erotic thriller with a hint of BDSM flavor gains the tag “the new Fifty Shades of Grey.” For a brief time, 365 Days, a Polish film brought to wider audiences thanks to Netflix, lived under that banner. Now the streaming service is giving it another shot with the four-part series Obsession.
The show tells the story of a volatile and reckless affair between seemingly happily married brilliant surgeon William Farrow (Richard Armitage) and his son Jay’s (Rish Shah) girlfriend, Anna Barton (Charlie Murphy). William’s wife, Ingrid (Indira Varma), occupies the fourth corner of this love quadrilateral. Thankfully, she does so without falling for her son.
If the plot sketch sounds familiar, it may be because Obsession is adapted from the novel Damage by Josephine Hart. Or perhaps it’s the Louis Malle film, also called Damage, from 1992. Or, to be rigorous, it’s possible one’s familiar with the Greek opera Damage, an Opera in Seven Meals from 2008. Regardless, the story has been told multiple times in various mediums and consistently well received.
So sad to see a streak broken.
It isn’t just that Obsession is bad; it’s that it feels as though it only has a passing knowledge of human emotion. In some cases, that appears to be the point. Murphy’s Anna, for instance, is clearly intended to be operating at an unusual emotional register. However, something done intentionally can still derail storytelling or keep audiences from being able to engage with the characters.
For instance, there is a sudden and tragic accident directly caused by William and Anna’s increasingly all-consuming sexual affair. However, because of the sheer lack of emotional involvement Obsession has trafficked in until that moment, the accident feels cartoonish, not horrifying. Its immediate aftermath, while more seriously handled, should be shattering. Instead, it’s a shrug. Only Varma manages to wring blood from that particular stone, going over the top in a way that still feels recognizably human.
It isn’t just that Obsession is bad; it’s that it feels as though it only has a passing knowledge of human emotion.
As for the sex, well, it’s there. Both Armitage and Murphy are undeniably attractive people. Their couplings have a queasy quality that is equal parts unnerving and intriguing. However, their first encounter, in which Anna insists William has total control while undeniably topping from below (if you will), proves the height of these scenes. Future ones may add props (a rope) or scene changes (an alley in Paris), but they never manage that strange, disquieting initial erotic charge.
Too often, the scripting pushes Armitage to look whiny rather than obsessive. The doctor’s fixation on reading Anna’s diaries is a nonstarter in terms of indicating the depths of his dependency. Worse, when he does get to read them, there’s nothing taboo, no thrill of discovery. Frankly, you’ll probably find more forbidden longing in the margins of your average high school student’s notebook than those diaries deliver.
Other moments are better at getting at the idea that Armitage is too far gone to make good choices, but they go almost too far. The already infamous pillow scene, for instance, is the sort of thing that’s understandable in the abstract. He goes primal for her scent. Unfortunately, rare are the directors that can make a scene of a man nearly suffocating himself with a pillow (that there’s almost zero chance actually still smells like her) while pleasuring himself work. Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn make good use of shadow and color throughout, but they can’t make that scene play, erotically or otherwise.
Unexpectedly what Obsession does well, if too little, is capture a married couple still alive with lust for each other after all these years. Varma and Armitage’s chemistry is strong. Their interactions during the “good times” hum with that mix of intimate knowledge and still present passion. The series well represents a couple who aren’t gripped by that early “have to have you all the time” hormones but whose kisses still feel ready to tip over into full foreplay at a moment’s notice.
Alas, a portrait of a functional long-term marriage isn’t the story Obsession wants to tell. Instead, it pursues a tale of lust and impulse that it never makes writhe with dangerous lasciviousness. It’s not enough to have implications of the taboo and brief moments of bondage. A story needs to make us feel how undone by desire these characters have become. Unfortunately, while it tells us over and over, it never makes us feel the danger or the hunger that should dominate every moment when their clothes aren’t off.
Obsession is currently teaching viewers the dangers of just leaving your secret address lying around for anyone to find on Netflix.