A monumental piece of miscasting in the title role, and an apparently tin ear for the nuances of English dialogue by Gallic helmer Francois Ozon, clip the wings of “Angel” pretty much from the get-go. Good-looking adaptation of late British scribe Elizabeth Taylor’s story of a young femme novelist’s rise and fall in Edwardian England looks set to thud to earth in Anglo markets, though it may fly higher as a dubbed or subtitled item in non-English-speaking territories. Arthouse aficionados of Ozon’s earlier pics won’t be amused.
Taylor’s 1957 novel, inspired by late 19th- and early 20th-century Brit writer Marie Corelli, was atypical of her oeuvre, and in fact satirized the overheated melodramas of the period. Pic makes it clear early on that the title character, Angel Deverell, has only a micron of talent. But stripped of any irony, let alone wit, the movie ends up as empty and flowery as the literature (and person) it should be satirizing.
Worse, the dialogue sounds like an English translation of a French edition and the performances, by a largely talented cast, seem curiously out of synch throughout. (Same problem affected Ozon’s mixed-dialogue “Swimming Pool,” though to a lesser degree.) Delivery is closer to the simplistic, declamatory style of a kidpic or a British pantomime, topped by a lead perf from up-and-comer Romola Garai that would be more at home on the London legit stage of the period. At no point does Garai make the fame-struck, self-absorbed Angel likable or even sympathetic.
What’s left is a colorfully costumed, two-and-a-quarter-hour haul through the life of a talentless bore, without either the spoofy humor of Ozon’s previous genre parody, “8 Women,” or the emotional grace notes of his finest movie, “Under the Sand.”
Pic opens in slow-clad 1905, with Angel, daughter of a provincial grocer (Jacqueline Tong), already a self-centered teen who pours out her romantic flights of fantasy on paper. When she finally gets a positive reply to her potboiler “Lady Urania” from a London publisher, Theo (Sam Neill), she hightails it up to the big city, convinced that success and recognition are her birthrights.
Theo recognizes a raw (and marketable) facility and, though Angel refuses to change a comma of her overheated prose — strewn with gaffes like “opened a champagne bottle with a corkscrew” –he signs her up. “Urania” and Angel’s subsequent outpourings are eaten up by pre-WWI Edwardian society.
Now wealthy, Angel buys a country manse, Paradise, she’d always dreamed of living in, and takes on as a personal secretary the adoring Nora (Lucy Russell), sister of handsome but tortured painter Esme (Michael Fassbender), whom she has her eye on. But the arrival of the war and the failure of her relationship with Esme sour Angel’s success.
Seemingly deprived of any strong direction, thesps largely perform as if they’re in different movies. Most successful is Neill, as Angel’s tolerant but bottom-line publisher, who brings a measure of subtlety to his role but still acts in a vacuum. Fassbender (“300”) looks the part but delivers his conflicted-artist dialogue sans conviction, and there’s no genuine sexual electricity between him and Garai (a recurrent problem in Ozon’s portrayals of male-female relationships).
Others phone in their perfs, from Charlotte Rampling as Theo’s soignee wife to Russell as the devoted, closeted Nora, whose attraction to Angel is made explicit in one scene.
Costume designer Pascaline Chavanne and production designer Katia Wyszkop have a field day with duds and artifacts, creating a heightened, chocolate-box version of Edwardian England –shot in Britain and Belgium — with d.p. Denis Lenoir an able accomplice. Composer Philippe Rombi wraps the whole shebang in a full-tilt symphonic score that similarly aims to capture the flavor of a’50s-style Hollywood studio production but ends up feeling strangely empty.