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Movie Review: 'Angelica'

Jena Malone is magnetic in much-delayed 'Angelica.'

Angelica starring Jena Malone has had quite a struggle to get to the big screen. The film was completed and shown to festival audiences all the way back in 2015. Only now, however, is this Mitchell Lichtenstein-directed Victorian-era thriller starring Jena Malone finally making it to a release date. I have no insight as to what has held the film back from release, though the strange and ambitious story and daring sexuality may have had a role to play. Angelica is not a movie that mainstream marketers would love to be assigned.

Angelica tells the story of Constance, the mother of Angelica, both of whom are portrayed by Jena Malone in an apt, if slightly confusing choice. Constance is working in a small shop when she meets Dr. Joseph Bardon, or Bardoni, (Ed Stoppard) though he prefers to downplay his Italian roots. Bardon falls for Constance immediately and begins to court her and soon marry her. This being the Victorian age, Constance is a virgin at marriage and when the two have sex on their honeymoon it is a revelation for her.

This revelation unfortunately turns harrowing when Constance nearly dies giving birth to their first and only child, Angelica. Doctors, being quarrelsome, Victorian fools, inform Constance that due to the difficult pregnancy and birth that she can no longer have sex. This is nonsense, of course, but this being Victorian era England, it’s a common bit of a bad advice and it goes immediately to Constance’s head. As Constance denies her desires for her husband and begins spending nights curling up with Angelica to avoid him and sublimate her desires, something strange begins to take hold of the household.

As Angelica grows older and Constance continues to freeze out her husband on doctor’s orders, they practically call her a whore simply for wanting to sleep with her husband for pleasure. Constance begins to have visions of some sort of viral presence floating in the air near her daughter. This floating specter takes on several, almost corporeal forms and Constance feels them in a way that seems to reflect the desires of her husband and herself. Slowly, Constance convinces herself that her sexual desires are manifesting as an attack on her daughter, as if a demon were punishing her sexual desire by threatening the child.

Janet McTeer enters the story here as Anne Montague, a spiritualist hired by the family maid, Nora (Tovah Feldshuh), first as a way of scamming a few dollars from the frightened mother. However, when Anne searches the home and performs a seemingly con-artist ritual cleansing, she finds that there is something deeply troubling about the home and her attraction to Constance causes her to dedicate herself to helping the troubled woman in any way she can.

There are a lot of sexual politics at play in Angelica and Mitchell Lichtenstein takes care not to exploit them in a cheap fashion. Angelica is light on nudity, at least in the version I saw; older reviews seem to indicate a harder-R rated cut, and when nudity is employed, it is shocking and impactful. Angelica is constantly building both story and atmosphere and Lichtenstein does a rather brilliant job of weaving weirdness into his more straightforward narrative.

The biggest standout, however, in Angelica is the cinematography. For a film that was barely able to be released and is assumed to have a relatively small budget, the film looks like a major budget feature. Cinematographer Dick Pope is a two-time Academy Award nominee and his crystal-clear images combined with Lichtenstein’s eye for staging and composition is a powerful combination. The costumes and sets are exceptionally well-dressed as well, with the Victorian era well exploited to help build the universe of the movie and play into the elegant weirdness of the story.

Jena Malone is an absolute hoot in Angelica. Switching from demure to deranged without missing a beat, Malone evokes memories of her glorious, underappreciated performance in Nicholas Winding Refn’s masterpiece The Neon Demon, with her dedication to grounding her character in oddity. Effortlessly sexy yet reserved, Malone owns the screen and when partnered with Janet McTeer, the power becomes more than enough to help me love this strange yet fascinating movie.

Angelica is unquestionably an oddity and there are elements of it that don’t work; Ed Stoppard is rather flat compared to his incredible female co-stars, but it worked on me. The strangeness of the story, Malone and McTeer’s magnetic performances and gorgeous filmmaking combine to make quite a unique and remarkable movie experience. I don’t know what troubled history kept Angelica on the shelf for so long but don’t let that keep you from giving this weird little horror novelty a chance.

Angelica is in limited release from November 20 and will be available on home video in February.