ANGELICA: An Absorbing & Unusual Victorian Ghost Story
It may have been sat on the shelf for three years, but Angelica is worth the wait- a slow burning period piece that's quietly powerful.
The alarm bells started ringing when it transpired Angelica had been made back in 2014, was shown at the following year’s Berlin Film Festival, but had only secured a limited US release now – almost three years later. Such a delay rarely speaks well of a movie’s quality. However, while Mitchell Lichtenstein’s third feature (following 2009’s uneven Happy Tears, and Teeth, his extraordinary debut from 2007) may have turned up to the party late, there’s still much to recommend.
All them dark things
Set in Victorian London, Jena Malone (The Neon Demon) plays Constance, a virginal shop girl swept off her feet by Ed Stoppard’s Doctor Joseph Barton, a well-heeled research scientist with grand plans to cure all disease. When Constance almost dies in child birth, doctors advise her to cease penetrative sex with Joseph, as it could further damage her already precarious health. She must, henceforth, be a “closed garden”, as they delicately phrase it.
Suffice to say, this turn of events negatively impacts their marriage, and Constance becomes more and more obsessed with the safety of the titular Angelica (Eliza Holland Madore), soon coming to believe her young daughter is under threat from a malign force in the family house. Desperate, vulnerable and increasingly estranged from her husband, for help she turns to Anne Montague (Janet McAteer) – a ghostbusting spiritualist/outrageous charlatan (take your pick) described as “a woman who understands all them dark things” and “as fearless as any man”.
It’s obvious from early on that the creature Constance thinks she’s seeing in her daughter’s room isn’t any sort of supernatural entity, but rather a figment of her own fragile mental and emotional state. The big question is what, exactly, is causing such horrifying hallucinations? It would be easy to reach for a psychosexual explanation involving Constance’s feelings of guilt and shame at not being able to satisfy her husband’s demands (she avoids him by regularly sleeping in an armchair right next to Angelica’s bed), or her own suppressed sexual desires. But there is rather more going on here than either of those possibilities would suggest.
Shaved heads, cold showers
To Constance, sex has seemingly become something sinful and dangerous, for which she will be punished. This is underlined in a scene when Joseph presses her into giving him, ahem, “oral relief”. But the act is interrupted when young Angelica starts coughing and spluttering, as if choking, in her bedroom next door. Constance is briefly convinced she and her daughter are physically linked in some uncanny way and even cuts her own finger to see if a similar wound appears on Angelica. This is a woman whose grasp of reality is slowly, sadly slipping away from her.
Although Lichtenstein never comes out and directly says it, I suspect Constance is suffering from undiagnosed postnatal depression, something doctors of the time would have had an inkling of (they called it “puerperal insanity”) but no idea how to properly treat. In fact, women with the condition were dealt with appallingly and often dispatched to asylums where shaved heads, cold showers and leeches were the order of the day. Working-class women like Constance, who is employed in a stationer’s shop when she first encounters Barton, would have had it hardest, acknowledged when another doctor (played by Charles Keating) tells her husband: “None of this is unusual in women of your wife’s class”.
There is irony here, too, because Barton is supposed to be a man of science and makes grandiose claims to that effect, and yet has no idea what it is that so afflicts his wife, and even considers having her institutionalised. He is capable of cold, dispassionate reason (particularly in an upsetting scene of vivisection which provides the film’s most gruesome moment), but empathy is something he sorely lacks (he still attempts sex with his wife, even when he knows it could harm her). Scientific endeavour is surely at its most efficacious when it mixes hard logic and boundless compassion, and to be so lacking in one of those qualities suggests his high-falutin’ ambitions as a great healer were always doomed to failure.
Angelica’s themes and ideas wouldn’t come across nearly so powerfully if Lichtenstein’s film didn’t fire on all cylinders elsewhere, too. Despite what I suspect is a small budget, Angelica is a sumptuously-appointed piece of work, for which we can thank Mike Leigh’s regular director of photography Dick Pope, and Rita Ryack’s elegant costuming. It has the look and feel – if not the subject matter – of a lavish BBC period drama, helped no end by an emotional score, courtesy of former Krzysztof Kieslowski collaborator Zbigniew Preisner.
The cast is strong, with McAteer (The Woman In Black) as the complex, mysterious Montague perhaps deserving the lion’s share of the plaudits. The British actress is a striking physical presence as she towers over almost everyone else in the film, including Malone, her piercing eyes lending her an otherworldly demeanour. Montague is clearly attracted to Constance in a way that may or may not be maternal (“Two women together can withstand most anything”) and passes up the chance, early on, to take her money and rip her off. That isn’t to say Anne has any more idea of what truly ails Constance than Joseph or his doctor friend. But the fact the older woman is still around years later for the film’s climax suggests that whilst Angelica is, at heart, a tragic love story, it is also a paean to enduring female friendship.
The only part of the film that doesn’t quite come off is a rather needless intro and outro which sees a grown-up Angelica – now a famous actress – attending her mother as her health starts to fail for a final time. Wizened Constance is about to make a deathbed confession concerning the events we have witnessed in flashback, but I’m not entirely sure what its purpose is. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure why Lichtenstein’s film is titled Angelica in the first place, seeing as how it is Constance and Joseph who mostly take centre stage. Perhaps the writer/director (who adapted this story from Arthur Phillips’ 2007 novel) is pointing a finger of blame: if it hadn’t been for the birth of their daughter, Constance and Joseph would perhaps have continued to enjoy a perfectly happy and fulfilled marriage. Children? Just say no.
In conclusion: Angelica
This is a real return to form for Lichtenstein after the powerfully cast (Demi Moore, Parker Posey, Rip Torn and Ellen Barkin) but ultimately rather disappointing Happy Tears. Angelica is a slow burn but rewards patience as the director takes his time to lay out his themes, introduce his characters and slowly ratchet up the melodrama. It doesn’t entirely work as a chiller because you quickly cotton on that the “ghostly” manifestations in Angelica’s bedroom aren’t real, but elsewhere, particularly in the film’s depiction of the treatment of animals and women, it offers a powerful and frequently discomfiting experience.
What is your favourite Jena Malone performance? The Neon Demon, Sucker Punch, Donnie Darko, or something else?
Angelica is on limited release in the US now
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