'Angelica': Berlin Review
Jena Malone and Ed Stoppard star in Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Victorian ghost story.
After his tongue-in-cheek black comedy-fantasy about vagina dentatus, Teeth, and the stoned-out family drama Happy Tears, maverick writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein throws his fans another curve ball with the lavish-looking, genteel ghost story Angelica, set in Victorian London and played with the serious intent of a BBC drama. Well, maybe not so tasteful as all that, considering the climactic (in more ways than one) scene between stars Jena Malone and Ed Stoppard. An atmospheric production created by a top team that includes cinematographer Dick Pope and composer Zbigniew Preisner, it seems to be the director’s farewell to indie cult and hello to more upscale audiences. But while the rough edges have been smoothed over, there is a punch missing that would have ended the film with some insight and relevance for contemporary viewers, or at the very least, a good scream.
Despite teasing the audience with horror elements, this is not an effective horror film. The supernatural events are too few and too easily explained away by anyone who has an inkling of Freud. Unlike Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which is an obvious comparison, the ghostly creatures that haunt the house of a young London doctor and his wife have little credibility outside the heroine’s head. And unfortunately, neurosis is rarely as interesting on screen as the inexplicable.
Based on Arthur Phillips’ even more complex novel, this is the story of a Victorian marriage destroyed by raging, out-of-control female hysteria, caused by medical ignorance, rigid gender divisions and good old sexual repression. The tale does have its goose-bumpy side, and Malone’s fine multi-register performance as the naïve shop girl Constance who marries a wealthy doctor offers some thrills.
Joseph Barton, né Bartoni (Stoppard), is a handsome gentleman-scientist who styles himself an Englishman, though his origins are Italian. The significance of this, in Constance’s eyes, is that he has irrepressible sexual appetites “too strong to be contained inside of him.” She herself is surprised by her own sensual response on their Venice honeymoon and visibly blooms into womanhood. But after the difficult birth of their first child, the doctors condescendingly tell her she can’t risk having another baby, which means the couple can never have sex again. Though Joseph tries to work around the problem, Constance starts sleeping in the nursery. Where better to exercise her anxious, over-protective maternal instinct than at the bedside of little Angelica? Soon, Mom’s horrible visions begin to take shape: giant microbes gamboling in the air against oppressive green floral wallpaper, like Eraserhead in color. Later, she sees a swarm of golden insects who, abetted by a giant snake, turn their sexual attentions on her. In Dick Pope’s magical lighting, the little critters seem like the shower of gold with which Zeus impregnated Danae in Greek myth.
Freud not being available in this story, enter Anne Montague (Janet McTeer), a former actress turned spiritualist called in by the family’s cynical maid Nora (Tovah Feldshuh) as a quack exorcist. The witchy, wide-eyed McTeer does a wonderful job ringing the evil spirits out of the house with a bell. But instead of fleecing the gullible Constance, she offers her a listening post and feminine understanding. There are even modern undertones of mutual attraction between the two women.
At this point, it seems like there are too many good characters to strike the fire of a scary drama. But even the good, kind, faithful Joseph has his dark side, too, as Constance discovers one day when she decides to surprise him at work. In a brief but gruesome scene, she finds him in his operating theater performing vivisections on cute monkeys, puppies and other furry creatures. Though the scene is out of character for the demure homebody Constance, Malone plays it so well, it works. Sadly, this repulsive but interesting side of Joseph’s character is never pursued, but simply filed away as “science” searching for the cause of diseases.
Visually, the whole film is a sensual delight. Luciana Arrighi’s crowded interiors are imaginative revisitations of the period, complemented by Rita Ryack’s startling fantasy Victorian costumes, all beautifully commented on by Preisner’s score.
Production companies: Pierpoline Films
Cast: Jena Malone, Janet McTeer, Ed Stoppard, Tovah Feldshuh, Eliza Holland Madore, Glynnis O’Connor, Charles Keating, James Norton
Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein
Screenwriter: Mitchell Lichtenstein based on a novel by Arthur Phillips
Producers: Mitchell Lichtenstein, Joyce Pierpoline
Coproducer: Richard Lormand
Executive producer: Magnonymous
Director of photography: Dick Pope
Production designer: Luciana Arrighi
Costume designer: Rita Ryack
Editors: Andrew Hafitz, Lee Percy
Music: Zbigniew Preisner
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
No rating, 95 minutes