There's nothing incompetent about "Dance With a Stranger," certainly nothing incompetent about the acting -- the movie showcases fine performances by Ian Holm and Miranda Richardson. That said, it's not exactly the kind of movie that will have you grabbing onto your armrests. Clunking along to its inevitable conclusion, it's like watching a barrel fall off the end of a truck.
Based on the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in the United Kingdom, the movie is set in London in 1954. Richardson plays Ellis, a hostess in a drinking club; her job is to keep things convivial, dance with the lonely men and sometimes sleep with them. Desmond (Holm), a frowzy burgher, would give his big toe for a brush of her cheek, but such slavish adulation bores her; she'd rather hang out with David Blakely (Rupert Everett), a dissolute aristocrat and race-car enthusiast.
So Blakely gets drunk and creates a row, Ruth shrieks at him, Desmond comes to her aid, Ruth and Blakely go to bed. Cut to Blakely getting drunk and creating a row. Ruth shrieks at him, Desmond comes to her aid, she and Blakely go to bed. And so forth.
Everett is a bit fey for my tastes; the idea of casting him as the young Orson Welles in the now-stalled "The Cradle Will Rock" never made any sense -- he couldn't make the stretch. But Richardson, looking like a cross between Jean Harlow and Betty Boop, pours her soul into a vessel of brittle pride, the vanity of an over-the-hill cheesecake model working quick shifts in Ellis' snappish moods. And Holm limns cowardice expertly. He always seems a bit dazed, as if someone flicked a flashlight on him in the middle of the night.
In the end, though, "Dance With a Stranger" (the title comes from a period song) is just the old "Of Human Bondage" number: obsession, class differences, doom. Why are we so fascinated with doomed love? It's an adolescent fixation, really, a way of glorifying what's humdrum about hormones. Now, a movie about love that isn't doomed, and isn't humdrum, either -- that, I'd like to see. Dance With a Stranger, opening today at the Outer Circle, is rated R and contains nudity, profanity and sexual situations.