Our Rating: 2 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Writers are an unusual breed, sometimes temperamental and frequently protective of their work. Angel is based on a novel about a rather spoiled writer who comes to realize that life is not how she imagines it.
Paradise House has always intrigued young Angel Deverell (Romola Garai), an aspiring novelist who has no use for school, does very little reading, and spends most of her time shut away in her room scribbling. The daughter of an impoverished widow and ashamed of her low beginnings living above a shop, Angel dreams of a rich and sophisticated life as a famous author. Her chance at popularity comes when her controversial romance novel is accepted by Theo (Sam Neill), a publisher. He proposes minor changes to the volume and she rejects them, but he is so intrigued by her as an individual that he chooses to print the volume, mistakes and all -- much to the annoyance of his wife (Charlotte Rampling), who finds Angel's manners lacking and her self-obsession in poor taste.
The public adores the slightly scandalous and overly melodramatic novel and Angel becomes an instant phenomenon in Victorian society, which brings her to a gala in which she makes the acquaintance of two individuals who will have a tremendous impact on her life -- the poetic Nora (Lucy Russell), who is her biggest fan, and her elder brother Esme (Michael Fassbender), a disgruntled painter who has not yet sold a single canvas. The story unfolds into the Edwardian era and the aftermath of the first world war but is primarily centered around the title character, who proves an interesting anti-heroine that in some sense, reminds me tremendously of Scarlett O'Hara. Ruthless, ambitious, highly opinionated and in all ways a complete and utter brat from the first moment she opens her mouth, Angel is not the sort of character that resonates with audiences, but all the same there is something almost touching about her at times -- if nothing else, she invokes our sympathy in her pathetic attempts to conceal her own self-doubt. In that sense, this may be Garai's greatest performance, because she manages to find empathetic nuances and bring them out in such a way that the audience never completely hates her, but still at times is humiliated by her behavior.
From a standpoint of pure cinematic entertainment, this film is exquisite to look at, with stunning photography and lush costumes -- a scene in which Angel and Theo drive down a lane in the early hours before dawn, and the light flows through the white fur ruff of her coat, blowing against her dark hair and pale skin, elicited a genuine gasp of pleasure from me. Sometimes the scenes in front of a green screen are deliberately fake and absurd-looking, perhaps to show the contrast between reality and life as Angel imagines it. But beyond the style of the production, I'm afraid I did not care for it -- first, it's depressing and second, there is no point. There is no moral message here, no lesson that she learns, no redeeming value apart from the costuming and several adorable fluffy kittens wandering about -- it's a story about miserable people living out miserable lives. The content also proves problematic in a few instances. There's no profanity of any kind, but quite a bit of nudity -- after a romantic night with her husband, Angel retreats to write and the camera pans out away from her sitting at the desk in the gloom, catching a view of her naked backside. Later, her husband undresses and climbs into bed with her -- we see his full bare backside as well. In yet another scene, Angel lies writing naked in bed, and the camera lingers on the side of her breast and a portion of her bottom -- Nora enters the room, rearranges the coverlet a little, and gives her a backrub. Several times, it is inferred that Nora's infatuation with Angel is more than friendship. Esme accuses her of being "in love" with Angel, so presumably that scene was meant to reveal sexual tension between them -- in addition to moments when the two women embrace or lay their head on one another's shoulders. We see a lot of thigh on Angel as her husband initiates making love to her, and puts his hand up her skirt. That scene ends before we see anything happen, but another brief scene shows them having sex, with movement (she doesn't seem particularly pleased). He comes home drunk later on and attempts to force himself on her, in what seems like an incredibly long and hard to watch scene (he wrestles her off the bed onto the floor and manages to get on top of her, before Nora enters the room and beats him with a crutch until she manages to pull him off Angel). Angel wears a somewhat sheer nightgown (nothing much is seen through it).
Some of the thematic elements may be troubling to audience members -- I was particularly astonished that Angel fell sobbing into her husband's arms, thanking him for coming back to her, after he had attempted to rape her the night before. There's also a suicide (someone is found hanging from the neck by a rope) and some war-related angst. In spite of the horrid behavior of the heroine, I rather liked the first half and thought the film had promise, but in the second half it descends into melancholy from which there is no redemption. Other than having enjoyed the gorgeous gowns and beautiful shots (Angel and Esme's first kiss is particularly wonderful, in the rain with sunlight and rainbows overhead), the film simply left me feeling empty.