Under-Rated Movies #19: Angel Baby (1995); Dir. Michael Rymer

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From the first moment Harry sets eyes on Kate, he is in love. She is intense, with dark eye-pencil lining her eyes, and strawberry blonde hair. Harry tells his brother later, “I worship her.” But he hasn’t spoken to her yet. He’s shy. Also, minor detail: they are both schizophrenics, and their first meeting is at one of the group sessions they have to attend at the clinic where they are both outpatients. Kate lives in a youth hostel, and Harry is staying with his brother and his brother’s family.

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One day, Kate gets on a bus, carrying a big bag. Harry follows her. Kate realizes she is being followed, and moves to the front of the bus. Harry follows her. The bus comes to a stop, and Kate suddenly flees out the back door. Harry races after her. He chases her through a park and she finally stops and confronts him, “What are you doing? Why are you following me?” He is too shy to answer. She urgently needs to get back on a bus. She races back to the sidewalk, and the bus has just left. She panics, dropping her bag, and screaming at Harry. “I needed to be on that bus. I need a television!!!” He, madly in love with this strange girl, grabs her hand and pulls her off with him. They run across a bridge towards the city. It is dusk. Harry has a plan. He takes her to a store with TVs on in the windows. Wheel of Fortune has just come on. Kate crouches on the sidewalk, taking out her journal, and she starts to watch the show, and write things down. She tells him that she gets messages from Wheel of Fortune from “Astral”, her “guardian angel.” Kate glances up at Harry and barks, “And don’t you dare laugh at me.” He shakes his head, he won’t, he won’t laugh. And he doesn’t.

Movies about mental illness are difficult to get right. Often I sense the ghoulish delight the actors have, in getting to play someone “crazy”, and it’s insulting. Or the problem is with the script. Scripts often choose mental illness as some kind of metaphor for enlightenment, sensitivity, or a poetic connection with the spheres of humanity – and that’s equally as insulting, to anyone who has struggled with mental illness or who knows someone who has struggled. It’s a sickness, not a poetic sensitivity, although I do realize the lines are sometimes blurred. Denial is very powerful, and nobody wants to admit they are sick. James Joyce’s daughter was schizophrenic, and he was in denial for years about it. He tried to see her as “poetic”, and “in touch”, and truly gifted, but he finally had to admit that she was just a very sick girl. Now that is an interesting phenomenon, and quite common when you are dealing with mental illness: denial, not wanting to believe, etc., and also confusion as in: How on earth do you fix what is happening in your head? What will happen to you when you are put on meds? Will you vanish? But far too often, scripts do not deal honestly with that dilemma. A Beautiful Mind tried to make John Nash’s delusions manifest, so that we are in his world, we see everything through his eyes. That was the only part of that movie that worked for me. The rest was a manifesto on how love can cure schizophrenia. Uh-huh. Sure it can.

Angel Baby makes none of these errors, and the result is a beautiful and harrowing film about two people in love, who struggle openly with their illnesses, and who try to make a go of it as a couple, against the advice of everyone in their lives.

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Written and directed by Michael Rymer, Angel Baby may sound, on the face of it, like a made-for-television movie, but it’s not. It’s a powerful film, featuring two spectacular performances by John Lynch (a favorite of mine) as Harry and Jacqueline McKenzie as Kate. Both actors won the plum prizes that year from the Australian Film Institute. The actors surrounding this couple are awesome as well, it is a terrific ensemble, especially Colin Friels as Morris, Harry’s brother, and Deborah-Lee Furness as Louise, Morris’ wife. Angel Baby really gets the ravages of mental illness, and how it impacts entire families, the tragedy of it, the fear of it, and how it tests everyone.

Harry was once a software programmer with IBM, but his illness has made him incapable of work. He has tried to commit suicide. He lives with his brother and his brother’s family, and there are beautiful scenes of him interacting with Sam, his nephew who is about 5 years old. Sam is afraid of the monsters that are in his room. His parents try to talk him out of the reality of monsters, but Harry understands being afraid. He understands that monsters can seem so real that it doesn’t matter if they are actually real or not. He takes Sam up to bed, and writes a “magic circle” around Sam’s bed with a piece of chalk, and tells Sam that as long as that circle is there, he will be safe from all monsters. A touching and empathetic moment.

Harry and Kate’s love affair heats up immediately. They devour one another in love scenes passionate and raw. Harry has Kate over for dinner at his brother’s house. She wears a skimpy orange dress showing too much skin. She nervously smokes. She refuses to use a fork, and tries to cut her meat with a spoon, for reasons known only to her. McKenzie is so damn good, because she manages to portray an obsessive person, a person who must do things in a certain way, and in a certain order, in order to maintain her already fragile equilibrium, without turning up the Crazy Nozzle. Morris’ wife asks Kate how things are going with Harry, and Kate replies, freely, somewhat flatly, “He’s the best lover I’ve ever had. He’s got a sideways move that rocks my world.”

Angel Baby is a love story with a tragic underbelly, a ticking time bomb of illness, that gives the entire film an almost unbearable tension, so even the happy scenes take on a fatalistic “this is how it once was for us” feeling. The colors in the early part of the film are warm and glowing, golds and reds and oranges, and slowly, as the film goes on, the colors start to bleach out. There are white-outs between scenes, not black dissolves, but the screen bleaching to white, which suggests, horribly, the fractured mentality of the two leads as they begin to lose themselves in their delusions. None of this would work if the romance were portrayed as anything other than an intense love story. If Harry and Kate were played as an amalgamation of twitches and obsessions, it would be condescending. They cling to one another – literally and symbolically – knowing the sword of Damocles hangs over their union, but they are so happy together, so in sync … shouldn’t that make a difference?

It does and it doesn’t.

They move in together, and there are funny scenes where they look through apartments at the realtors’ office and add up the numbers of the addresses and apartment numbers, and reject places because they are not numerically calming. Lynch and McKenzie glance at one another, and you can see their eyes adding up columns of numbers silently. “Apartment 11 – so that’s 2 – and what’s the floor again? It’s on the 6th floor? So that’s not good …” Their numerical system is not made explicit, but it works on them repeatedly, and causes much anxiety, limiting their movement. Bus numbers, dates, apartment numbers – there is a vast interconnected system out there, and if they can just align themselves correctly with the messages they are being given, from Astral, they will be safe.

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Kate becomes pregnant. She decides to go off her anti-psychotics for the safety of the baby. Harry, in an act of solidarity, goes off his as well, and they sit over the toilet, flushing them down, the bright green pills whirling down the drain, reminiscent of the image of the wheel of fortune on TV, incessantly spinning, colors over colors, telling them the future. The inevitable occurs. They both begin to lose it. Things begin to spiral down.

John Lynch, always good, is outstanding here. His transformation, from shy bumbling ill man at the beginning, to passionate funny loving partner, is breathtaking. It gives him so far to fall, and you feel the loss of that happy self, the same way he must feel the loss in his lucid moments. He has one scene in a public bathroom that is so powerful it roars out of the middle of the film a howl of loss and pain so unforgettable and wrenching it will leave you out of breath. He pounds at the side of his head, screaming to the ceiling, wanting to kill that illness inside of him, wanting to kill it forever. It is an incredible moment, burned on my head in indelible ink. Acting as good as it gets.

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Jacqueline McKenzie has been doing superb work for a couple of decades now, and this is the role of a lifetime. She is heartbreaking, a beautiful funny spirit, knowing in her bones how to cheer up her boyfriend (she stands on the edge of a bridge, flapping her arms in imitation of the gulls overhead, cawing at the top of her lungs), and she understands her own illness intimately. She knows what will happen when she goes off her meds. But the baby must be safe and free from complications. If it means she loses it for a bit, she is willing to take that risk. Illness of this sort, however, is a Leviathan from the deep, and it will take you DOWN. McKenzie charts this progression in a masterful way. There is a scene in a dark mall, when she has a bad episode, and she crouches in an abandoned restaurant. Harry finds her there, and takes her in his arms. She doesn’t just hold onto him in return. She clings, almost trying to climb up onto him, merge with him totally. However close he is holding her, it is not enough. She knows it. She knows what is coming. When the madness has finally overcome her like a tsunami, it is as though the very contours of her face have changed. The soul is no longer in the eyes. Only the madness. It has co-opted her completely.

Michael Rymer has created a beautiful romantic mood here, shot through with whimsy and humor: their apartment is like a big playpen, with collages of words and numbers pasted on the wall, little shrines, and banks of candles (offerings to Astral), and colorful clothes hanging up inside, with the omnipresent Wheel of Fortune on in the background of every scene. The movie is funny. There is hope. While the hope is mainly embodied by the two main characters, who know who they are, and know they are in love, Harry’s brother (played by Colin Friels) is such an important element of the story. He knows how this will all probably end. He has lived with his brother for a long time. But he hopes. He hopes it will be okay. He is kind to Kate, even with her social awkwardness and sudden bursts of aggression. He is an old hand at dealing with a psychotic person. He is terrific, and his character here is a potent and poignant reminder of how much is lost with an illness such as schizophrenia. Harry and Kate do not (no matter how much they try) live in a bubble where only they exist. They have people who care for them, who hope for them too. The tension between Harry’s brother and his wife comes from this sense of loyalty towards his brother. How much longer will they have to put their own lives on hold to deal with the tailspinning illness of his brother? But when do you say “No more”? How can you?

Love is about embracing the unknown, illness or no. It requires trust in the future, an acceptance of uncertainty. Are you the one? I don’t know … are YOU the one? Not knowing how it will all turn out, and yet acting anyway, is an essential part of falling in love. Harry and Kate already accept that much is out of their control. They did not choose to be mentally ill. They hate the drugs, but accept the domination, knowing the consequences. Here, falling in love is the wild card it is for all of us. How will it turn out? Will we be okay? Will my heart get broken? Are you the one? Are you the one? Angel Baby understands this on a level more intensely than other movies that cover the same territory.

Harry and Kate stand on the edge of the bridge, in the golden light of sunset, fearful of what will happen with their baby, fearful of how they will survive, afraid of the madness coming again … knowing what that is, what that will mean … and they flap their arms like the birds, cawing, cawing, cawing … reaching out to one another to grasp hands, worried, you can see it in their eyes, but also laughing. Laughing not because they are happy. But laughing because all they have is the moment.

Everything else is a leap of faith.

Unfortunately, Angel Baby is not on DVD. I had to buy a used VHS copy off of Amazon. I saw it during its original theatrical release.

Angel Baby was one of the best films of 1995.

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13 Responses to Under-Rated Movies #19: Angel Baby (1995); Dir. Michael Rymer

  1. jess says:

    I worked for an entertainment distributor right after college, and snagged this one day out of the promo bin in the office. I had never heard of it before, but found it so moving, and beautiful, that I watched it about a billion times. Your tribute was also moving and beautiful, and I totally got misty reading it, remembering how tragic it was. I love, love, love this movie. I wish I still had a VCR, because I would watch it right now.

  2. sheila says:

    Jess – I’m so excited to hear you saw it too. I agree: it unfolds with this awful sense of inevitability – yet you get swept up in it, you hope for them … Totally tragic!

    I wish I had a VCR to DVD thingamajiggie – I’d make you a copy!

  3. TonyDayoub says:

    I’ve never seen this or most other films by Rymer (with the exception of the intriguing failure QUEEN OF THE DAMNED), but I grew to appreciate his talent on the late, great BATTLESTAR GALACTICA reboot, where he was responsible for fashioning much of the shooting style of the show as the director of the pilot and numerous other episodes.

  4. sheila says:

    Tony – nice details, thanks for adding them. I should have mentioned more of his work in my piece – I havent’ seen any of his other stuff either. He has a great style, and the fact that he wrote Angel Baby as well shows his massive talent. Excellent script. If you see a second-hand copy of it (and you have a VCR) – I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ve always loved Jacqueline McKenzie – I think the first time I saw her was in Romper Stomper – but here? She is EPIC. And John Lynch, whom I will always think of as “Cal” is just terrific. Wonderful and sad movie.

  5. Sabina says:

    I loved this movie so much. I saw it twice when I was 15, during its theatrical release, and have never forgotten it. I still remember the review that made me want to see it; it quoted Michael Rhymer as saying something like, ”I wanted to make the kind of movie that if I had seen it at 16 would’ve changed my life.”

  6. sheila says:

    Sabina – How lovely, I wonder what review that was! It certainly would have made me want to go see it too. My friend Rebecca took me – she had already seen it, and she told me I HAD to see it. Very grateful that she dragged me there on that rainy night. It had been years since I saw it when I finally bought the used VHS tape and so much of it came rushing back. The performances are unbelievable.

    • Sabina says:

      Once I thought about it, I realized the only film critic I would have been reading as a 15-yr-old in the pre-Internet age was the one who wrote for the newspaper my family subscribed to – it was Janet Maslin’s NY Times review. Link in my name.

  7. Jamie says:

    Oh wow. I found this is a box recently after cleaning out the attic. Sadly I no longer have a VCR. When it first came out in 1995 I was working at a (now defunct) Tower Records. I thought, “hey, I’ll go see this before work.” Horrible idea, I think I cried in the bathroom 3 times during my shift. I saw it once a day until it was gone a week later. I had the VHS buyer at our store order me a copy, the very same one I found a few weeks ago. It’s so beautiful. Hardly any other films really capture the mad passion of new romance. The scene at the end, with the bridge, his eyes are truly haunted. Easily one of my all time favorites.
    Thank you for the excellent article, it was written with the utmost respect and love.

  8. sheila says:

    Jamie – It is such a harrowing movie, so upsetting, so INEVITABLE – and the love I have for those two people (and the people who love them) makes it even more upsetting. It is so beautiful. Thanks so much for the comment! So nice to see that this movie is remembered. I can’t believe it’s not on DVD!

    • Jamie says:

      When my wife and I had our son (he’s 5.5 years old now) THIS movie haunted me. Reminded me that sometimes love does not conquer all. I was absolutely mortified that my wife might die in childbirth. It’s one of those irrational fears that men get when their partners are with child. I heard that goddamn squawk in my head throughout her whole pregnancy.

      If you love Angel Baby, please tell me you’ve seen Leolo by Jean-Claude Lauzon? If not, PLEASE rent it and share you thoughts.

      Also, Angel Baby is available on a Region 4 (Aussie) dvd, but not domestically. It could be had, but in a difficult manner.

  9. Meagheanne Donahue says:

    I love this movie, saw it when it first came out. Have tried for years to get it on DVD. Finally just ordered it on VHS just to have it.

  10. michael says:

    Great comments about this seriously under rated film, which according to the famous neurologist and author Dr Oliver Sacks ( Awakenings), in one of his books was the best portrayl of schizophrenia in a movie. Being the father of a schizophrenic son I beleive it, it portrays a psychotic episode as terrifying as it must be for someone suffering it. I dont know how schizophrenics are treated in the US when they go off there medication or their medication stops working and they become psychotic but here in Australia more often than not the police further terrorize them by shooting them with tasers or spraying them with capsicum spray.

  11. stacey says:

    anyone know where i could get this fantastic movie these days?? I don’t care if its only on vhs, i have a dvd/vhs player still! Iv been looking for this movie for years!! If you know where i could get it, please email me at stace.rj@hotmail.com

    Cheers!

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