27 December 2010

Angel (2007)

Angel a Fun, Fanciful Take on Period Romance Yarns
By Kristin Battestella

I’m surprised it seems hardly anyone has seen the 2007 period drama Angel stateside- especially in light of the chick flick period piece abundance in recent years: Becoming Jane, Pride & Prejudice, and Atonement, anyone? Unlike brooding Austen-esque serious romances or stuffy period snooze fests, French director Fran├žois Ozon’s tongue in cheek look at British period pieces offers over the top wit, fun love, and a touch of Victorian heavy.

Angel Deverell (Romola Garai) dreams of becoming a famous writer and leaving her mother’s (Jacqueline Tong) grocery shop for the grand life at the nearby Paradise House estate.  When the young and precocious Angel submits her manuscript to publisher Theo Gilbright (Sam Neill), the whirlwind of fame and success soon follow, despite criticisms from Mrs. Hermione Gilbright (Charlotte Rampling) and Angel’s aunt Lottie (Janine Duvitski).  Dowdy and shy poet Nora Howe-Nevinson (Lucy Russell) admires Angel greatly and quickly ingratiates herself as Angel’s live-in secretary.  Angel, however, becomes smitten with Nora’s brother, the lothario painter Esme (Michael Fassbender), and soon rushes to marry him.  All seems right and beautiful to Angel at her Paradise House, but war and the coming Edwardian changes soon force her to see beyond her fiction- both on the page and in real life.

Based on the book by Elizabeth Taylor- no, not that Elizabeth Taylor- director Ozon (Swimming Pool) and co writer Martin Crimp (London South West) wonderfully blend the Victorian charm and stuffy sensibilities with an intentionally fanciful storybook styled humor and ability to laugh at one’s self. Angel begins with bemusing turn of the century settings and shocked old ladies- and the contrast keeping a modern, refreshing vibe throughout. The titular Angel enjoys her tawdry behavior and the funny reactions of the uptight around her, and even if this makes her a little unlikable to start, we are entertained nonetheless. It’s as if Little Women or Gone with the Wind has grown up for contemporary audiences.  With lots of old time montage stylings, laugh out loud dry Brit wit, and a somehow un-super sappy romance; this period piece drama is able to offer plenty of character success, pity, admiration, and love talk while keeping itself lighthearted, realistic, and sensible. Yes, all this lovely dovey stuff can be silly, and our characters rise and fall accordingly- but there’s a good story to be told, that’s all that matters. Naturally, Angel is an unabashedly sentimental film full of over the top bias- but despite heavier subject matter in the second half of the picture, Ozon doesn’t let these hedonistic characters take themselves too seriously.  Things do get a little kinky, as well, but the crisscrossing love triangles and speculations somehow remain innocent or left for the audience to bear in mind for the players at hand.  Everyone here keeps secrets, each uses everybody else, and though an overall blissful tale, Angel comes to its eventual tragedies wonderfully. It’s amazing how fortunes lost can be the best thing ever or how the fruition of our wildest dreams can come to ruin and such unceremonious end.  Angel balances the love, hope, and drama without all the heavy we expect in European melodrama.

AngelWell, it’s lovely to see a young writer in the hopes of greatness, but Angel is a little bitch isn’t she?  I’d love to smack her for being such a snob who tantrums until she gets her way and thinks she’s just perfect for never having read anything.  Angel also has a serious case of over-active imagination- today we’d call that being a delusional compulsive liar and medicate her up! Talk about someone who’s fresh, ungrateful, and completely full of it. You can be driven to an artistic goal without being a bitch, and Romola Garai (Atonement, As You Like It) does a fine job of balancing Angel’s humble motivations and fantastical lifestyle. Angel is so ashamed of where she comes from, and we can certainly understand her hopes and dreams.  We want to see her succeed, but Angel obviously gets swept up in the high life and fame a little too quickly- and it’s all her own making anyway. She gets everything she wants- but at what price? Marriage, motherhood, the very writing she loves so much? It’s wonderful to see Garai’s progression of character, not because Angel starts out as such a bitch, but because we want to see the reform and the takedown of the sell-out.  The audience needs Angel to learn how to not be such a fake-will she?  It’s enchanting to see Angel’s Victorian splendor and pop juicy books loose their luster as changing Edwardian fates find her in true Dickensian fashion. She uses her mother’s death for more authorly mystique and is blinded by her own image of Esme right to the end.  Angel gives false eulogies and lies about every circumstance and situation. Such a flake can’t really ever share of herself, can she? Despite being great artists, everyone in Angel wears masks and no one can fully express him or herself.  Angel has it all and it isn’t good enough, when will she be satisfied?  Part of Angel’s trouble is that we might not exactly like our titular protagonist, yet Garai is delightful in making her so distasteful and over the top.  Even so, we can certainly relate to Angel’s delights, as well as the err of her ways.

Well, Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Fish Tank) enters Angel a half hour into the film, and  hot diggity dog, Esme is meant to be an over the top, breathtaking rogue. The zing between the zealous writer and crappy painter is played with some old-fashioned fun to start. Here swoops in the checkered knight in shining armor, and Angel sees past all his ills for her own gains.  Esme seems as precocious as Angel, so serious about his paintings, as if his are the only artwork of note ever.  His idealized-in-Angel’s-eyes-charm forgives his promiscuous bohemian painter ways- because no one in Angel likes to face the music of the real world.  Esme’s touched by Angel’s attention- but isn’t afraid to use her on the rise to the top, either. It’s so giggly to see how each is trying to fast track the other, because both see the fake but can’t quite look in the mirror at themselves. For Angel, Fassbender is styled perfectly with some ginger light hair and a bit of a snotty RP accent. However, his eyes are lovely and again carry character and performance unsaid.  Was there really any doubt we were going to enjoy him in this movie?  Again, I’m surprised this was not the film that made Fassbender a star, the good looking but shitty and traumatized painter!  And he is definitely very Bond-ish in a wet tuxedo with a rainbow over his head- I’m just saying.  Seemingly just the hot Picasso, when World War I comes Fassbender captures Esme’s torment- the battlefront and deception on both sides of the marriage ruins all. Esme’s continued emasculation at Angel’s hands builds wonderfully to the film’s conclusion.  Perhaps considering his tragedies, personal demons, and premature death, it’s not a compliment to compare a modern actor to my old favorite Montgomery Clift.  However, the more of Fassbender’s work I see, the further impressed I become in his Clift-like ability to so passionately immerse himself with such body and soul into his character and yet be so subtle and on the mark about it.  You can go into a film certainly thinking it’s just a hot Fassy fest.  However, by the end of Angel you come away thinking, ‘Hot damn, he did it again!’ We don’t see Fassbender at all, just Esme facing his fate.  Yowza!

Not to be outdone by the young leads, Sam Neill (The Tudors, Jurassic Park) is perfectly period charming as Angel’s publisher.  His lovely father figure ways, lingering devotion, and putting up with Angel’s worst add weight and realism. Gilbright sees her potential and the good of her work and Charlotte Rampling (The Swimming Pool, The Verdict) adds equal class as his critical but respectful wife.  Jacqueline Tong (Upstairs, Downstairs) is also delightful as Angel’s mother, walking the fine line between support, spoiling, and humility.  By contrast, Janine Duvitski (One Foot in the Grave) is a lot of fun as Angel’s doubting old aunt. The viewer needs an onscreen representative of realism and skepticism. Despite the melodramatic angles, the supporting ensemble does this and grounds Angel wonderfully. Last but by far not least, Lucy Russell (Tristan + Isolde) is perfection as the closeted and nerdy Nora. The complete opposite of sassy and decadent Angel, Nora is desperate to live vicariously through her.  There’s plenty of latent implications here as well.  Does Nora want Angel’s physical love or does she really want to embody her writing spirit like a Single White Female muse? It’s fascinating to see Angel use Nora and enjoy playing the Howe-Nevinson siblings against each other.  

Oh, Angel offers some sweet costumes, too- from the early humble of the disenfranchised underbelly to all the late Victorian opulence and debutante styles. It’s also nice to see the contrast of pre-War decadence juxtaposed with the loose and comfortable twenties flapper styles and how these differences reflect great character faults and strides. Instead of longwinded hyperbole laced with modern wartime and political statements, the silent Victorian splendor shows how out of touch it really is after the Great War.  Seriousness and whimsy are instead smartly handled by the musical arrangements.  We have both famous compositions and original scoring by Philippe Rombi (The Girl from Paris) to anchor the somber and serious or the sweeping and seemingly epic fun.  The lovely estates, locations, and witty photography are also charming, complete with the mix of horse drawn carriages, cool early cars, quills and clickety typewriters!

I mentioned Gone with the Wind earlier, but Angel also seems like a modern My Fair Lady jolly old Gigi musical or the female take on The Magnificent Ambersons as well.  Some period romance fans may be put off by the seemingly mocking and dreamlike tone- after all, why not just make a straight period romance? The play of genres is also a little uneven- I feel split in some ways in my analysis here. It’s a romance, but not sappy; period but fantasy, lighthearted yet still heavy.  I suppose either you accept Ozon’s vision for Angel or you don’t. However, for those of us who don’t like our period dramas so overtly romantic, Angel fills the void with artistic analysis and flights of fancy.  Though not for super young ones, reading and writing teens or mature families should be able to handle the brief nudity, subtext, and suggestion.  Angel may even be fun for a comparative college course discussion on book to film adaptations and contemporary film romance debates.  The newly released Region 1 DVD offers a nice fifteen-minute interview segment with the cast and Ozon, but otherwise it’s just trailers and plenty of previews on the rental edition.  I suppose a commentary might have been tough for Ozon to do in English, but c’est la vie.

Uncommitted viewers can find their preferred rental and streaming options or catch Angel on the Sundance Channel.  (Actually, I just call it ‘The Fassbender Network’ because the channel shows Angel, Hunger, and Fish Tank quite often.)  Fans of the cast will definitely delight, and writers or fans of authors on film can appreciate this one.  Indulge in the grandiose period fun with Angel tonight.

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