Angel Baby - Rymer's Underrated Debut
Published on: August 4, 1998
Angel Baby (1995), a critically-acclaimed but relatively commercially unsuccessful film by Michael Rymer has to be one of Australia's most underrated motion pictures. Rymer, who has an extensive background in writing for film and television, made his feature film directorial debut with this film, displaying a visual sense and emotional sensitivity that indicates the coming of a man with genuine talent.
Michael Rymer's virtuosity permeates this film in so many areas, particularly in the precise crafting of the main characters' interactions. Early in the work, Rymer has opted for long takes, placing a focus on drama, performance and complex character interplay. Fortunately, the two leading actors, Harry (Sliding Doors' John Lynch) and Kate (Romper Stomper's Jacqueline McKenzie), were each capable of maintaining an appropriate fašade of psychological confusion. In one particular sequence, the pair, having just met, compare the scars that they have on their wrists. This scene is treated with particular sensitivity, creating a strangely, tragically, tender connection between the two that both draws parallels between their past lives and which puts a bizarre twist on the conventions of the romantic comedy.
Both of the lead characters possess mental illnesses. Kate is a romantic stargazer who believes that her guardian angel, Astral, is sending her messages through the television game show, Wheel of Fortune. Harry is a similarly lost soul, though his ambitions are clearly more in touch with what many perceive as 'Reality'. Both attempt to face their adversities together, moving away from their carers to live with each other. The result of their obtaining such a degree of independence, though, is that they close themselves into a world of their own; a world that they believe is safe and padded; a world where they need no medication. Upon growing overconfident and putting a stop to their medication, the pair's real struggle begins.
While a similar path has been trodden by filmmakers in the past, Michael Rymer treats the main characters as 'real' human beings, possessing particularly complex personalities. Not everything is black-and-white in this film. The mentally-challenged pair are not treated as comic relief and their carers are not shown to be cruel (ala One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)). Instead, we are drawn into the couple's world with mixed feelings. We understand why they stop their treatment, we grow to believe in Kate's angelic conviction and we see the world as a terrifying place for those who reside on it's fringes.
It is a credit to Rymer that he so effectively conveys the horror of the mundane to an audience that may otherwise laugh at such situations. In one sequence after the pair have ceased treatment, for example, their decision regarding the purchase of an 'on sale' item is thrown once they find out that the sum of the digits that make up its new price is not a harmonious number. This leads to a claustrophobic, chaotic sequence of events that includes Kate's collision with a roller-skater and her flustered attempt to get her blood back, going so far as to lick it from the floor. Kate, running from the scene of the accident, finds herself in a closed restaurant without Harry. Rymer and DOP Ellery Ryan use the spike-like upside down chair legs in conjunction with thrilling music to create a period of extreme tension, effectively bringing the shadows to life in a manner that invites us into Kate's mind.
Moments such as this, juxtaposed with interludes of true passion - passion for life and for each other - creates an intensely emotional, and ultimately tear-jerking motion picture experience that is perhaps the most complex and successful variation on the 'quirky' romantic comedy sub-genre that has prevailed on Australian screens of late.