Since we’re doing Saturday reviews of old classics, I thought I’d throw in a Sunday review of a contemporary (2003) one, a remarkable film based on an even more remarkable play. Both have won many awards, but it seems likely that some of our viewers have missed Angels in America. That’s too bad, because it’s a major achievement in turn-of-the-millennium drama—and it’s genre, of a sort.

Directed by Mike Nichols
Written by Tony Kushner .

Cast
Al Pacino as Roy Cohn
Justin Kirk as Prior Walter/S&M man
Ben Shenkman as Louis
Patrick Wilson as Joe Pitt
Mary-Louise Parker as Harper Pitt
Meryl Streep as The Rabbi/Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg
Emma Thompson as Nurse Emily/Homeless Woman/Angel
Jeffrey Wright as Mr. Lies/Belize

Several of the main cast also play secondary angel roles.

Premise:

Roy Cohn, conservative saint and private slimeball, dies of AIDS; a Mormon explores his sexuality; a woman loses her grip on reality, and several other people deal with H.I.V. in the 1980s. Meanwhile, a dying man believes that he’s in contact with an angel.

High Points:

This film has many high points, especially in the first acts. Pacino gives a stunning performance as Roy Cohn, whom the playwright has handled brilliantly. He can be despicable, and at times, we’re invited to experience schadenfreude at his situation. Yet he’s all too human, and Pacino makes us feel for his character as he faces death.

Hannah Pitt’s encounter with a homeless woman proves memorable for many reasons, including these lines:

Shut up! Please stop jabbering for one minute and pull your wits together and tell me how to get to Brooklyn, because you know and you’re going to tell me because there is no one else around to tell me and I’m cold and I’m wet and I’m very, very angry. So I’m sorry that you’re psychotic but just make an effort.

Her development as a character also makes for one of Angels‘ better performances.

For that matter, Louis‘s encounter with an S&M dominant gets a prize for having the funniest punchline of Angels’ several memorable humorous lines, and the playwright’s ability to find humour while writing about a plague makes this one of the most remarkable productions in recent years.

Low Points

Onstage, the appearances of the angel can be spectacular, if done correctly, and the effect cannot properly be duplicated onscreen. The filmmakers try with Hollywood special effects; these only occasionally have the proper effect. They’re technically competent, but they detract from the performances.

However, if you’re going to include Hollywood special effects, why would you cut the line from the play that references Spielberg, and acknowledges that spectacle, when it happens in real life, now immediately brings to mind popcorn movies?

Finally, some of the otherwordly business in the final half doesn’t hold up to the rest of the script.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6. This is an adaptation from a fairly original play.

Effects: 5/6. Technically good, but sometimes misplaced.

Story: 5/6. Extraordinary for most of the six hours; the final portions lag a little.

Acting: 6/6 The cast give excellent performances.

Production: 6/6

Emotional Response: 6/6

Overall: 5/6.

In total, Angels in America receives 37/42

Final Comments

I realize some viewers might shy away from something originally subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” but the story speaks to issues that apply to all kinds of people in many places.

The fact that this has been adapted from a stage play is very clear at times, but Angels in America has a power that generally carries over to this filmed version.