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Should I Watch..? 'Killing Me Softly' (2002)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Poster for the film

Poster for the film

What's the big deal?

Killing Me Softly is an erotic thriller film released in 2002 and is based on the novel of the same name by Nicci French. Starring Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes, the film is the only English-language movie by Chinese director Chen Kaige - the Palme d'Or winning director of Farewell My Concubine. The film follows a young woman in London who gives up her ordinary life to embark on a passionate affair with an enigmatic mountaineer who may not be all that he seems. Initially planed for a wide theatrical release in the US, the film was quickly pulled from schedules after the film was ravaged by critics and instead headed for a direct-to-DVD release. The film struggled to earn more than $6.6 million worldwide, far below its estimated $25 million budget. The film's critical and commercial disappointment meant that Kaige returned to directing films in his native China while both Graham and Fiennes quickly moved on to other projects.


What's it about?

Young American woman Alice is working in an office in London while happily living with her English boyfriend Jake. After a chance encounter in the street, Alice finds herself besotted with a strange man - so much so that she immediately jumps into a taxi to his place and they quickly have passionate sex. The next day, she learns who he is - Adam Tallis, a mountaineer who survived a tragic accident which killed several people including his lover although he managed to save the lives of others. Captivated by Adam, Alice leaves Jake and begins a relationship with Adam instead.

After Adam leaps to Alice's aid during an attempted mugging (during which Adam beats the mugger to within an inch of his life), Alice quickly agrees to marry Adam despite her friend's reservations about how quickly things are moving. After marrying Adam and moving in with him, Alice begins receiving a mysterious string of letters and menacing phone calls including a letter from a journalist regarding a rape allegation against Adam. Realising that she knows nothing about her new husband, Alice starts to follow the paper trail and comes to believe that she is in grave danger.


What's to like?

You know as well as I do that any film that bills itself as an erotic thriller is going to fulfil at least two of three criteria. 1) It will lean more heavily on the erotic half of the equation than the thriller half. 2) It will feature a popular actress getting undressed more in the first half of the film than she does in the second half, tempting viewers to stick with it through the promise of more nudity. 3) It will throw in one scene involving something approaching S&M. As far as Killing Me Softly goes, it's a clean sweep.

The film is a turgid wade through melodramatic cliché and plot-twisting madness that makes little sense. It's not helped by the fact that Alice is quite clearly the stupidest woman ever to appear in such a film, which at least does have the distinction of being the first film I've ever seen that reverses the role of femme fatale - a homme fatale, if you like. But the film has very little to recommend unless Ms Graham's body is all you need in a movie (or Mr Fiennes, for that matter). Other than the switch of gender roles, the film hasn't a single original idea to be found anywhere. Since when was mountaineering sexy anyway?

Fiennes veers wildly from kinky mountaineer to blatant psychopath - you cannot deny the film's set-up is unusual.

Fiennes veers wildly from kinky mountaineer to blatant psychopath - you cannot deny the film's set-up is unusual.

Fun Facts

  • The screenwriter Nicci French is actually the pen-name of husband and wife writing team Sean French and Nicci Gerrard, both of whom attended Oxford University but never met there. They've been married since 1990 and live in Suffolk in East Anglia.
  • In the US, the film was released on Blu-ray in 2013 as part of a double-feature with The Hot Spot - a 1990 neo-noir thriller directed by Dennis Hopper - which received a far better reception from critics than Killing Me Softly ever did.
  • In the background of a photo, you can see a statue which often features on the covers of books by Nicci French published in Dutch. Why this is relevant remains uncertain.
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What's not to like?

Well, let's start with Alice - a self-centred buffoon who leave her life behind and gets intimately involved with a guy whose name she doesn't even know. Does this sound like a character we can empathise with or feel for when the screw gets turned? Adam is your classic baddie in these sort of films, a ruggedly handsome chap who could quite possibly have a collection of dead bodies under his patio. Throw in Deborah, Adam's far-too-nice sister and the unfortunate sap Jake (who should have popped back in the end in a murderous rage) and the film is littered with characters that defy any sense of logic or reality.

The film quickly falls from its clothes-shedding opening into a depressingly familiar tale of is-he-a-psycho with plot twists coming out of nowhere and very little making sense. The ending, which is so deliciously demented that I won't spoil it for you, will have rolling in laughter assuming you haven't reached that point already. The skill and beauty behind Farewell My Concubine is replaced with an uninspired direction that makes the film feel even more like a soap opera. Even fans of the book, who you think would be excited by a cinematic adaptation, will be put out by the numerous changes the film makes.

Graham and Fiennes generate less chemistry than a puddle of amino acids. Considered their relationship is formed on little more than animal lust, it's tragically flaccid.

Graham and Fiennes generate less chemistry than a puddle of amino acids. Considered their relationship is formed on little more than animal lust, it's tragically flaccid.

Should I watch it?

Chances are, you've probably already seen the best bits if you've been online long enough. The film is a startling dud, making idiots out of its cast and bamboozling viewers with its nonsensical narrative. Graham and Fiennes deserve better than this but the person I feel most sorry for is Kaige, no doubt hoping that this film would open doors for him internationally. It wasn't to be, meaning that his films and skills as a director remain one of Chinese cinema's best-kept secrets. As for this tripe, it's best if we move on.

Great For: Internet perverts, pause buttons, mountaineers

Not So Great For: couples, fans of the book, improving the reputation of erotic thrillers

What else should I watch?

I suppose most people will head straight to the equally dumb Fifty Shades Of Grey which features a popular actress (Dakota Johnson in this case) getting undressed and involved in S&M-style sex games. Despite the impressive box office receipts, the film bombed amongst critics and the subsequent sequels did little to get them on side either. But if that doesn't float your boat then there are a whole host of underwhelming alternatives - Madonna gets 'em out in Body Of Evidence, you've the increasingly old-school 9½ Weeks while Meg Ryan desperately fights against type in In The Cut.

Fortunately, there are a small number of films that use eroticism to help tell a story instead of generating headlines, controversy or Internet downloads. The Reader is a wonderfully written and performed film featuring Kate Winslet as a former prison guard having a torrid relationship with a young man in post-war Germany. Blue Is The Warmest Colour is a French coming-of-age tale that also won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, though its raw depiction of sexuality made it stand out from the crowd. Finally, there's Shame with Michael Fassbender playing a sex addict forced to put up with his younger sister living with him for a while.

Main Cast


Heather Graham


Joseph Fiennes

Adam Tallis

Natasha McElhone


Ulrich Thomson


Ian Hart

Senior Police Officer

Jason Hughes


Technical Info

*based on the novel by Nicci French

DirectorChen Kaige


Kara Lindstrom*

Running Time

100 minutes

Release Date (UK)

21st June, 2002




Drama, Erotic, Mystery, Thriller

© 2018 Benjamin Cox

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