Based on a true story of a professor charged with raping one of his students, “Gross Misconduct” is a well-established relationship/courtroom drama that women will find particularly challenging. While potential is there for carefully positioned theatrical exposure, it would make an excellent movie for cable and pay, aided by Jimmy Smits’ presence, and a solid video title.
The case it’s based on happened in the ’50s, when a philosophy professor tried for 10 years to clear his name in the courts after being sacked for alleged rape.
“Gross Misconduct” is set in the ’90s and has a far more definite outcome, but as in the real case no one comes out a winner, and the sticking point that may keep the the film from finding a wide audience is that it’s essentially a depressing story.
And while it strives to bring in elements of a psychological thriller, which could attract that wider audience, it’s the play of relationships that comes across the strongest.
Smits plays a highly popular professor, Justin Thorne, who’s happily married and employed. One of his students, Jennifer Carter (Naomi Watts), becomes increasingly infatuated with him and strives to become closer through personal tutorials and baby-sitting.
She fantasizes about having liaisons with Smits, and keeps a diary that documents each imagined encounter. She finally expresses her desire, which Smits gently but firmly rejects; however, he finally succumbs while trying to restrain her anger after a more definite denial.
By now it’s clear that her obsession is driven by more than just an awakening of teenage desire, with indications her father Kenneth (Adrian Wright) has some form of control over her and is intensely jealous of her interest in Smits.
The police find Watts not long after the encounter, badly beaten, and claiming to have been raped by Smits, who is soon arrested. The diary, lies he’s told police, and the way he met his wife Laura (Sarah Chadwick) all add up to a guilty verdict.
How the pic ends shouldn’t be revealed, but it indicates the harrowing life Watts has lead, and leaves Chadwick and Smits with a tattered relationship.
Apart from a slow development of what drives Watts’ obsession, director George Miller has paced the pic well.
The court scenes are well-handled, and Smits is particularly effective in his admission of being guilty of indiscretion but not rape, knowing how this reflects on his marriage and the abuse of power it implies.
Watts, better-known for her TV work, is excellent — bright and sensual one moment, scared and withdrawn the next. In so doing she will build sympathy for her character, since she’s a victim in many ways.
Technically the film is of high quality, with Miller opting for a suitably subdued look and wintry, often rain-washed gothic settings (it was shot in Melbourne), which may surprise those used to the bright, expansive look often seen in Aussie films.