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Angel Deverell comes of age in Edwardian Cheshire knowing she will be a great writer. Rising above her class (her widowed mother has a grocery shop), Angel finds a publisher and a wide audience for her frothy romances. With royalties, she buys an estate, then she's smitten by Esme, a rake from local aristocracy and an artist of dark temperament. She hires Esme's sister Nora, who dotes on her, as a personal assistant, and pursues Esme. Angel is grandly self-centered, coloring her world as if it were one of her novels. When the Great War breaks out and reality begins to trump her will, can Angel hold on to her man and her public? Written by
Hungary's gift to world cinema via Hong Kong (her birthplace), the amazing Romola Garai, here really pulls off the impossible, aided by the deft and sure-footed Francois Ozon as director. Here she gives a performance so impressive that she actually saves a bodice-ripper of a romantic novel by Elizabeth Taylor but becoming a travesty, and turns it instead into a classic. This is one of those daring film projects which one would have thought had no chance of success at all. It is done with tongue just enough in cheek not to take itself too seriously, but because of the intensity of Garai's central performance as the over-the-top character Angel Deverell, and the earnestness of her great big eyes as she does it, the impossible happens, and the film works! Really, the result is astonishing! The sombre, toned-down performance of good old Sam Neill also helps, because he is so under-the-top that he quite compensates for Angel Deverell's wild and extravagant excesses as a character. A bemused Charlotte Rampling oozes suitable resentment as Neill's wife, and her narrowed eyes are used to as good effect as ever as she studies Deverell in the way that one would watch a snake glide across the terrace. (Or is it Rampling who is the snake gliding across the terrace? One is never sure with her, especially when she is peering from under those lids and being dangerously subdued, as if coiling to strike.) Francois Ozon is best known for SWIMMING POOL (2003), in which Rampling did one of her many excellings (she has been winning the gold star for a long time now). Ozon seems to have paranormal relations with outstanding examples of the feminine psyche, and without the combination here of Garai and Ozon, this film would have been one of the greatest flops of our time. Garai must have had to have this most caressing of directors looking approvingly at her every time she did one of her wild scenes, so that she could be sure from the feedback that she had not disgraced herself by over-acting. I just don't know how they pulled it off. The way Garai opens her eyes with that innocent stare, wider, wider, Ozon could be considered a kind of dentist: 'Open wide! Now wider! No, wider! Wider!' And it works. The film is consciously a parody of the traditional English romantic novel (you know those dreamy things which women read furtively, in the way that men look at porn magazines, both concealing these vices from each other, since all women secretly believe in true love just as all men think mostly with their organs, and each is ashamed to admit the truth to the other sex). In England these novels are called 'Mills & Boon novels', after the publisher which published so many of them; no man I know of has ever read one. Well, this story is set in Victorian England and is about a precocious 18 year-old girl (Garai, who although 25 at the time looks genuinely 18) who lives above a grocery store and refuses to accept reality in its present form, so to counteract her grim life she writes an early 'Mills & Boon' type novel. It is accepted for publication by Sam Neill and she goes on cranking out these corny books in endless profusion and becomes immensely popular and very rich. She buys the country house she admired from afar when younger, which is (you here have to remember that the cheek is suddenly full of lots of tongue) 'Paradise'. Here the director was very clever and used a real house called Tyntesfield near Bristol in the west of England, and the result is simply breathtaking. The art direction of this film is absolutely spectacular. How much fun they all had doing this! The character played by Garai is an insufferably egotistical self-delusionist on the grand scale, and normally one encounters this kind of role only with much older actresses, as for instance Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), as a classic example of the type. It is quite a switch to see a young girl play a character who is even more delusional, insane, and self-obsessed than Tony Blair, and every bit as ruthless. Such parts just don't come along for young actresses, whose opportunities to be demented are generally restricted to the more conventional sex sirens, nymphets, or other characters relying entirely on their sexuality. Here sex doesn't come into it, it is all romantic mania carried to the highest possible levels of intensity and, frankly, insanity. This actually makes a refreshing change, since women do have other qualities than desirability, though those of us who find all women intoxicating often have to slap ourselves to stop being so distracted by all those alluring qualities they have and remember that even more interesting than their irresistability is their MYSTERY. Women are a parallel universe, without whom there would be no Universe at all. We men who admire them can only stare in wonder, uncomprehending, at the miracle of femininity. We have such a good example of it here, so provocatively put before us in the context of a frothy romantic confection which gently makes fun of itself as it goes along, that the film might be called more of a witty homage than anything serious. And with that Gallic lightness of touch which the French so often bring to things like this, even when made in English as ANGEL is, the result is a film which could not be more of a delight. Sour-natured people, or those with no sense of humour, should look away now, to avoid being affronted by scenes of dangerous levity.
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