Depicting the most desolate kind of existence through a fragile community of women working the bordello of a Midwestern prairie town in the 1870s, “Painted Angels” tells its tale with uncommon rigor, truth and austerity. But the strong ensemble cast only partly succeeds in breathing life into characters not really rich enough to sustain what’s basically more portrait than narrative. Shot on imposingly rugged Saskatchewan locations, but stagy and stultifyingly slow, the film looks unlikely to figure commercially beyond cable situations.
Story covers the hardship and misery endured by five frontier whores employed in a brothel run by protective but pragmatic madam Annie Ryan (Brenda Fricker), who is struggling to keep the business afloat and ward off the encroaching competition.
Her girls include Nettie (Kelly McGillis), who sidelines in abortions in order to support her child without help from her drunken husband; Ada (Anna Mottram), fast becoming too old and undesirable to attract customers; and Georgie (Lisa Jakub), who uses the edge her youth and beauty give her over the others.
Following the shooting of one of the women by the man she supported, German dancer Katya (Meret Becker) is brought in to replace her. Aloof and unfriendly at first, she slowly becomes part of the group, using her purported clairvoyant gifts to help naive, Irish Eileen (Bronagh Gallagher) commune with her dead family.
While the sober drama is not without emotionally affecting moments, Brit director Jon Sanders’ measured approach admirably refuses to sentimentalize events such as Georgie’s unwitting betrayal of Ada, the older woman’s resulting dismissal or the tragedy that befalls Eileen. The main concern here is not one of plot but of meticulous observation of the harsh life of women forced into cold sexual transactions with no rewards and no way out. But the film’s restraint ultimately prevents the characters and story from engaging as fully as they should.
Similar to Sanders’ direction, performances are quiet and unshowy. Fricker strikes a fine balance between tough Annie’s hard and soft edges; McGillis registers a wise intensity; and as Ada, co-scripter Mottram is moving in perhaps the most satisfyingly written role. Even given its one-horse-town setting, the threadbare production is sparsely populated, but period detail is functional within the relatively confined sets.