A love story set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, “Talk of Angels” has several elements of a romantic epic but none of the passion or power. Despite a prominent international cast, pic’s central romance suffers from a lack of chemistry. If the dismal performance of the higher profile “In Love and War” is any indication, new pic, which lacks recognizable American stars and has been in a holding pattern on Miramax’s release sked for eons, will be overshadowed in the domestic marketplace. Overseas prospects are marginally better.
Based on Kate O’Brien’s novel “Mary Lavelle,” “Talk of Angels” is the story of a young Irish governess (Polly Walker) who has left her homeland to spend a year working for a wealthy family in Spain.
Already entranced by the country’s beauty and history, Mary soon becomes intrigued with the family’s handsome son, Francisco (Vincent Perez), who, though married, is drawn to her, too. With Spain on the brink of war and riots erupting in the streets, Francisco and Mary must decide whether they can pursue their forbidden love, doomed though it may be.
As the would-be lovers, Walker and Perez are individually charismatic and undeniably attractive, but together they generate about as much heat as Lake Placid in February. Also to his detriment, freshman helmer Nick Hamm favors easy stereotypes, portraying Mary as a demure Irish girl awakened by Francisco’s Spanish intensity.
That the central romance isn’t credible is one of pic’s biggest failings. That Perez, who is half-Spanish but was raised in France, speaks English with a decidedly French accent is another.
Others in the cast have better luck, although in cast-off supporting roles, Frances McDormand, Ruth McCabe and Rossy De Palma pass almost unnoticed. Italian thesp Franco Nero renders a dignified portrait of a patriarch in crisis whose family and country erode before his eyes. It doesn’t help matters that when he and Mary share a private moment, there are more sexual sparks between Nero and Walker than there are between Walker and Perez.
Equally distracting is an inconsistency of tone that pervades the film and seems to beg comparison to several classics. In what might be an homage to the Gothic romance genre, the family home is sometimes presented as a sprawling edifice with secret rooms and long stairwells.
And Marisa Paredes, as the sinister, secretive matriarch, Dona Consuelo, vaguely echoes Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca.” At other times, the house has the more friendly, countrified feel of a Southern plantation, and Spanish actresses Penelope Cruz and Leire Berrocal, as the Areavaga daughters, recall Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sisters.
Pushing the “GWTW” parallel a notch further, Hamm even frames a scene of Mary walking amongst the dead in Madrid in a manner that unmistakably recalls Scarlett wandering among the wounded in Atlanta.
But Mary Lavelle is no Scarlett O’Hara; she lacks the psychological complexity to make her a truly interesting character. She does, however, have the wardrobe of a movie heroine: Liz Waller and Lala Huete’s costumes do a fine job of evoking 1930s European fashions.
Unlike some of the most potent wartime love stories (“Casablanca,” “Reds,” “The Way We Were,”), “Talk of Angels” doesn’t use the politics of war to create tension between the lovers; it’s as if the war were irrelevant to their personal drama. Though the film raises a number of questions, the most compelling concern what was left in the editing room.