Friday, 4 December 2009

Respect The Delicate Ecology Of Your Delusions.

What a great line.

I mentioned very recently that I am greatly affected by the length of films. That I have a short attention span and I can often struggle to sit through longer films. This was in relation to La Dolce Vita. I also mentioned that I had recently watched Angels In America, the five and a half hour HBO miniseries from 2003 (which I'm counting as two films for the purposes of my 365 day challenge. Bite me.) I brought that up because I actually watched the first five and a half hours in one sitting, only stopping because it was getting quite late, I was quite tired and I had to be awake early the next day to run errands and prepare for my imminent Icelandic departure. I didn't want to stop watching, and I almost kept going regardless, to hell with sensibility. But in the end logic prevailed.

Angels In America must have one of the best casts assembled for a television event in recent memory. Count 'em. Meryl Streep. Emma Thompson. Al Pacino. Patrick Wilson. Mary-Louise Parker. Justin Kirk. Jeffrey Wright. Ben Shenkman. James Cromwell. Michael Gambon. And directed by Mike Nichols (The Graudate, Silkwood, Closer - many others.)

Based on the play, Angels In America takes place in the early and deadliest days of the AIDS crisis in America, in the mid-1980s. Prior Walter (Kirk) has the most screen time, I guess making him the lead. In a relationship with Louis (Shenkman) for four and half years, he is now quickly dying of AIDS (well, AIDS-related illnesses, but let's keep it simple.) Louis can't handle it and abandons him, leaving him to his suffering and delusions - and possibly a visit from an angel (Emma Thompson, in one of her various roles in the production.)

Meanwhile, Roy Cohn (Pacino) is a high-flying lawyer also dying of AIDS - or liver cancer as he'd prefer it to be known publicly. He is alone because he has nobody in his life - he has pushed everyone aside. He is a hard-arsed son of a bitch who has pissed off so many people - though he has managed to remain within the affections of closeted Mormon Joe (Wilson), whom Roy has taken under his wing, presumably hoping to get a little rumpy-pumpy out of it. Joe is naive, and struggling with a wife, Harper (Parker), who is addicted to valium and suffers from her own delusions. He takes long walks through Central Park, watching the men have sex in the trees but too afraid to participate - for now. Eventually, with Harper's mind and his marriage disintegrating, he enters into a relationship with the guilty and devastated Louis - his first gay encounter. (Following? There's more.)

Binding these stories together are Belize (Wright, reprising his award-winning turn in the original Broadway production), who is Prior's best friend and nurse to Roy. A strange, disgusted respect brews for Roy, while his anger for Louis shows through loud and proud - like everything else about him. He looks after Prior when Louis runs off, and is involved in the eventual hunting down of Joe by Prior - Belize knows Joe through Joe's visits to Roy in hospital whilst Belize is taking care. In addition, Joe's mother Hannah (Streep) has come to New York from Salt Lake City after Joe calls her at 4am, drunk and in Central Park, to come out to her. She is there to take care of Harper and Joe, despite the fact that Joe has run off to be with Louis, but ends up in a confrontation with Prior that sees her taking him to hospital and experiencing another of his visits from the Angel of America (that's Thompson, for those not keeping up.)

It's an extraordinarily interlinked and finely woven tapestry of screen production. I always find modern representations of the AIDS crisis important (especially ones so well received as this one) as I think current generations don't truly understand the gravity of the disease and how ravaging it really is. Like Holding The Man (the stage play and the book), it is an entertaining and thought-provoking look at what really happened back then, when people didn't really know what was going on, when there was so much fear about what the syndrome was all about, when the stigma attached to homosexuality was still so strong. Philadephia may have brought that out into the open a little more back in the mid-90s, but it is always well worth being reminded.

And reminded how. This is an incredible almost-six hours of television marvel. Streep, Wright, Thompson, Shenkman and Kirk all play multiple roles (apparently in much the same way as in the stage productions), and do it brilliantly. It is overly melodramatic. It is overly stylised. But it is all entirely perfect. Every detail included in the production fit, because for the most part we're not dealing with reality. We're dealing with visions and delusions and insanity a lot of the time. We're dealing with prophets and messengers. We're dealing with heaven and earth. We're crossing faiths, races, genders, sexualities. It is so finely twined, but perfectly understandably so. It's easy to understand (a lot easier than I'm sure my run-down above was) but never simplistic. It tackles issues that needs to be tackled head on. I can only imagine what the reception for the play was back in the early 90s, when the crisis was still going strong.

But the film doesn't really preach, in so many words. Its themes and morals are definitely worn on its sleeve, but it's more about the people and the stories and their arcs and what they go through individually and together. It is entirely human, even as it delves into the supernatural. Even the angels are flawed. Hope and salvation doesn't, here, come from above, but is reliant on the deeds of those on the ground - who are for the most part reluctant, wanting just to go on as they were without causing trouble.

It's beautiful and amazing. That's all I have to say. I could watch it again and again. I can't recommend it highly enough. See it. See it all. 5 stars.

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