Netflix’s Obsession Review: Much Less Sexy Than It Looks

This erotic thriller is bafflingly devoid of thrills.

Netflix Obsession Charlie Murphy and Richard Armitage
Photo: Netflix

Titillating trash. Satisfying drama. As deep as it thinks it is – all things that Netflix’s Obsession isn’t. This four-part series adapted from Josephine Hart’s 1991 novel Damage (memorably filmed as Louis Malle’s 1992 feature film of the same name) aims to be an arty, meaningful portrait of erotic obsession but turns out to be more of a boner-killer. 

It’s not the fault of the cast, who commit mightily to the task. Richard Armitage and Charlie Murphy dial up their intensity to dangerous levels as William and Anna, two people whose affair blasts apart their lives. 

Anna is dating William’s besotted son, but shares a sexual frisson with his father that proves irresistible. After a chance meeting at a work do in which Will breathily pushes an olive between Anna’s lips and gets such a lob-on that he has to spend the rest of the episode deflating it on his exercise bike, they start shagging. Thank goodness, because Will’s trousers weren’t going to survive many more family Sunday roasts of passing the peas while attempting to tuck it behind his belt. 

Another reason to be grateful that Will and Anna give in to their attraction without putting up much of a fight is that the shagging stops them from delivering more of Obsession’s dialogue, which is in English, but achieves the odd effect of sounding as though it’s been dubbed from another language, possibly one invented by an AI.

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We should have been prepared for such a wide swerve to have been taken around naturalism by the opening scene in which Will – a brain surgeon in only the most literal sense – scrubs down after successfully separating conjoined twins and is told by a colleague “It was a pleasure to watch you in there” with all the humanity of a online retailer Chatbot. 

More zingers follow when Will’s wife Ingrid – the excellent Indira Varma, wasted here like the rest of them – announces to Will that he’s “had an enormous few weeks” and “a weekend out in the country will do them all some good”. The dialogue isn’t just dull, it’s blank. Ellipsis has been repeatedly mistaken for importance. It makes you wonder if a voice-over narration was planned and then cut. That, or whether the creators are pre-emptively allowing space for the cast of Gogglebox to add in the actual entertainment.

Will, for one, barely says a single word until the final episode (he hasn’t the time, what with all the erection-reducing-cycling sprints and silent window staring on his schedule). Possibly the idea was to show that, as in the novel, he’s barely alive until he meets Anna. Without his internal monologue though, the result is that we don’t know him, never get to know him, and only know him as the awful man who recklessly prioritises his horniness over his son’s happiness and fakes hospital emergencies to hook up with his mistress.

Will’s easily the worst person on Netflix, including its catalogue of true crime serial killer docs. He follows his knob to utter destruction and teaches us nothing other than ‘don’t’ in the process. Well, durr. There are no insights offered here, and no probing beyond that done in juddery thrusts on the parquet floor. 

Anna’s sketched with a slightly surer hand. In an attempt to make her more than just a temptress, thought has clearly gone into her psychology, her family’s history of abuse, her personal erotic blueprints and her desire to submit to control. None of that though, succeeds in making her anything other than maddening company. Charlie Murphy can do wonders with the right material and starts to come alive towards the end, but Anna’s evasive “learn to love the questions” catchphrase here is unacceptable. Anybody who attempted it in real life and not within the confines of a loftily ambitious Netflix four-parter much of which they spend gasping in pleasure while Guy of Gisborne drips water on them from a cold flannel would be told to get over themselves and rightly so. 

The sex is frank but also off-puttingly self-important. Anna and Will come across as too pleased with themselves and their secret trysts to be able to enjoy the sight of them going at it in violent, hair-pulling bursts. Viewer mileage on how erotic it feels will obviously vary, but it’s difficult to push aside the thought during scenes of extended rutting that you’re watching a nature documentary without the commentary. If you experience different, then I wish you joy of it.

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The pity is Obsession’s overall blankness, which confuses ambiguity with profundity. By its end, when a plot finally shows up, nothing much is concluded or provoked. The talented cast led by Armitage and Murphy give it everything, but through no misstep of their own, achieve very little. 

Obsession is available on Netflix now.


2 out of 5