William Farrow (Richard Armitage) is not just a surgeon – he is a brilliant surgeon making headline news by successfully separating conjoined babies! In fact, he is not just a brilliant surgeon making headline news by successfully separating conjoined twins, but modest too! (“A pleasure to watch you in there,” says one of his younger colleagues, before William assures him it was a team effort). Plus, not only is he a brilliant but modest twin-divider, he is long-married to a hot successful lady barrister (Indira Varma), so he is sexy and feminist too! All in all, it is about time everything went to pot by reason of him falling into obsessive love with his twentysomething son’s mysterious girlfriend-cum-fiancee Anna (Charlie Murphy) and making an absolute tit of himself.
And lo, because Netflix’s new four-part “erotic thriller” filling in the recently vacated Sex/Life slot is based on Josephine Hart’s 1991 novel Damage, it comes to pass. Damage, readers of a certain age will remember, was the following year made into a film starring Jeremy Irons as the infatuated older man, Juliette Binoche as the enigmatic femme fatale and Miranda Richardson stealing the whole show as the shattered wife and mother.
We have come a long way in many fields of human endeavour since the early 90s, but, alas, actors have still not learned to run fast and run far from anyone who wants them to appear in anything with the words “erotic” or “obsessive love” in the brief. Writers, producers, directors – they will tell you that it is going to be an exploration of the moral complexities of infidelity, or a grim interrogation of the depths to which humanity will sink in the pursuit of the prime penis-directive, or a study of how psychological damage affects everyone involved. And yet, it only ever ends up with you getting your bum out in the service of art and people sitting on the sofa picking their noses and going: “Well, I don’t see what she/he sees in him/her, do you?”
There was, many earnest publicity interviews with the cast and crew have assured us, an intimacy coordinator on set, and “nudity parity” was ensured. So, equal bums and equal bits mean that we can all relax and enjoy the sex scenes – of which there are many. William and Anna’s eyes first meet across a crowded drinks party “in parliament” (the script is woeful) and soon there is nudity parity in her friend’s flat, nudity parity up against walls in Paris, nudity parity in a garden. You name it, there’s nudity parity. And, actually, the sex is fine (for the viewer, I mean; Anna and William seem to enjoy it, too, especially once a global streaming platform’s permitted take on BDSM is added to the mix). It’s the obsession bit that’s the problem. Mainly because on camera “gazing at someone with barely controllable lust and adoration” reads uncannily like “being suddenly stricken with the urgent and barely controllable need for a poo”. For much of the time, Armitage and Murphy both look as if they have eaten a bad oyster and need to make a sharp exit – but not for more nudity parity.
The first episode is only half an hour and the rest barely make 40 minutes. Hart’s actual plot is slight, and it is possible that there was a tacit decision to keep all the parts that depend on unspoken sexual tension as brief as possible. After the inaugural olive-eating scene, in which Anna asks “Is that for me?” at the parliament party, and William pushes it into her mouth with a frankly bewildering lack of finesse from someone who has recently separated conjoined twins. Plus, the attempt at smouldering looks over the washing up in the Farrow kitchen after Anna meets her fiance’s parents for the first time. An opportunity was missed to fill this drama with some credible psychological detail or give some complexity or nuance to any of the relationships, instead of requiring wife and fiance occasionally to furrow their brows and assert vague suspicions at fairly random intervals. Maybe they were too busy monitoring the nudity parity spreadsheet.
The leads do their best to sell the thin stuff they have been given. Varma gets one worthwhile, Richardsonesque scene in the final episode, but is otherwise criminally wasted. And Marion Bailey as Anna’s mother Elizabeth does what she can with a part that requires her to be alternately all-wise, all-seeing wise-woman-on-the-hill and utter simpleton.
There is a risible attempt – late, late on – to give more weight to Anna’s backstory and the cause of her inner damage. It is no more than gestural, which, given the subject matter, seems borderline irresponsible. But you’ll have seen some bums and bits and maybe next time will be better. At least the twins are stable.
• This article was amended on 14 April 2023 to replace a reference in the text and subheading that may have given unintended offence.
Obsession is on Netflix.