In Obsession, Netflix’s new BDSM thriller, the chaos begins when femme fatale Anna Barton starts giving sex eyes to her future father-in-law. “Is that for me?” she breathes, before he erotically pops an olive into her mouth. This, by the way, is the first time they’ve spoken. I was nervous when I met my boyfriend’s dad for the first time, but at least I didn’t do anything that weird.
This is the problem with this adaptation of Josephine Hart’s 1991 novel, later made into a film in 1992 starring Jeremy Irons: it wants to gird our loins, but often it just makes us giggle. Obsession has been hailed as the successor to Fifty Shades of Grey, but instead it gives us an overload of shlock, foreboding string music and some depressing, grunty shagging.
Richard Armitage plays William, the horny dad in question who is also an important and brilliant surgeon. He has just performed a challenging operation, separating a pair of conjoined twins, after which everyone – but especially his wife Ingrid – reminds him that he is important and brilliant. “You should have a lie in tomorrow. You’ve had an ENORMOUS few weeks,” coos Ingrid, played by Indira Varma with elegantly camp relish. The couple head to the fancy country pile owned by Ingrid’s parents, where they try to extricate the name of their son Jay’s (Rish Shah) hot new girlfriend.
It’s... Anna Barton. Except: if only her identity had remained a secret forever, because next thing you know, William – being primed for an important role in politics, or something – goes to a Westminster party where he meets pouty fringe owner Anna (Charlie Murphy), who is a civil servant. There, sexual glances are exchanged. Erotic olives are eaten. Events are put in train. Before you know it, the pair are embroiled in an intense affair, meeting in an expensive but weirdly furniture-less flat to have the aforementioned grinding, grunty sex. Anna tells William about “the rules”: that she will control everything except when they’re at the flat, when he can do what he likes. What he likes to do, it turns out, is read her diary and sometimes wrap her up in silky ribbons. Pass the smelling salts.
“I’d love for you to get to know each other!” gormless Jay tells his dad. But Anna is mysterious; she tells a dark secret to William, but otherwise evades scrutiny with the infuriatingly inane mantra, “learn to love the questions”. I think the show might be interested in the patterns of behaviour exhibited by badly damaged people (the novel’s original title is Damage), but the script lacks the requisite insight or nuance. Why is Jay marrying this woman? Have they ever had one proper conversation? Learn to love the questions, guys!
Nor does Obsession manage to conjure the headiness of William’s supposed obsession with Anna; the final episode’s shocking conclusion should be earned by the unhinged intensity of his desire, but instead it arrives as a wildly comical handbrake turn. Even more so, the thinly drawn, two-dimensional characters leave the actors helplessly stranded. Only Varma escapes with her dignity intact. Murphy, so good as Ann Gallagher in Happy Valley, has to play a sexual cipher, while Armitage’s performance mainly seems to entail “man trying to not have an erection”. At one point, William catches the Eurostar (honestly) to have sex with a hotel cushion. “Seriously? Is this happening?” I cried, wondering if I was hallucinating. You gotta learn to love the questions.
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