"DANCE WITH A STRANGER" is like a Lana Turner film, a melodramatic romance set in the '50s with a hopelessly tragic outcome. Its heroine, Ruth Ellis, even looks like Lana, with an ivory face, plucked brows and her hair dyed platinum.

She holds court as a hostess at a London nightclub, where preppie boys and comfortable middle-aged men come to drink and hold the girls. Ruth, sleek as the fins on a Chevy and as hard, melts for one man only -- playboy David Blakely, dark and chiseled and weak inside. This is the true story of their fatal affair.

As Ruth, Miranda Richardson makes a bravura debut. She calls up visions of Monroe and all the chalky beauties of the day, opposite Rupert Everett's dark good looks. Everett of "Another Country" is perfectly cast as the indolent aristocrat. They're a coldblooded pair of lovers, like addicts shooting up.

In the background is British character actor Ian Holm. He plays Ruth's close friend Desmond Cussen so adroitly that, at first, we don't realize this is a love triangle, helped by the players, all interested in seeing that the game goes on. Desmond is doggedly devoted to Ruth, patiently waiting, it seems, for her affair with David to end. Yet he self-destructively fans the flames.

Matthew Carroll, as Ruth's young son Andy, watches David come and go from his mother's bed. Increasingly he's left on his own as his mother is drawn deeper into this degrading relationship.

The cinematography and the mood music evoke the melodramas of that time, which had a kind of color so raw it almost seemed black and white. Here it is bruised looking. And the orchestra strikes up "Doggie in the Window" by Doris Day.

The powerful and profound screenplay is by Shelagh Delaney, who wrote her first play, "A Taste of Honey," when she was 19. The actual history and the heroine are already gripping, but the film is a timeless study of love poison.

The two lovers thrive on an ugly sado- masochistic mechanism, at first felt in such small ways. He calls her Mrs. Ellis. She shaves him, bathes him, treats him like a child. Soon he is slugging her, but we know she wants him to, that she finds this battering compelling. Finally we are disgusted with her obsession, yet we thoroughly understand her inability to just quit, to kick the habit.

There will be feminist complaints, of course, but director Mike Newell seems to see his film as a protest against the repression at the root of it all. Whatever his politics, this relatively unknown director breaks through with this period film.

It is a time of mistaken ideals, he says. A time of false faces. In perhaps the film's most telling scene, Ruth alternately removes and replaces her eyeglasses to apply her make- up, hoping to see herself as others see her. When she is as unreal as it is possible to be -- false eyelashes, hair color, and sharp breasts, carmine lips -- she is ready for the ball.

She arrives with Desmond and spends the evening studiedly ignoring David, who's there with his upscale fiancee. The scene fairly vibrates with their pretending not to see each other, torturing each other, until they come together again explosively, as helpless as molecules in a chemical reaction.

The unstable relationship becomes more and more desperate. You know she's hit rock bottom when they meet by chance in the thick London fog. The bruise from their last encounter is fresh on her cheek. He asks to see it as they grapple like animals in an alley.

It is a compelling decline, a fascinating refrain in an eternal theme of mistaken love, a sad, mad ballet between strangers.

DANCE WITH A STRANGER (R) -- At the Outer Circle.