Rumor of Angels, A


An Unlikely Friendship

Main Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Trevor Morgan, Ray Liotta, Catherine McCormack

Director: Peter O’Fallon

The idea of angels is cool. It’s a comforting thought to imagine those we love who have died are really but a breath away, watching us. That they’re alright somewhere and we’ll see them again. Some people hold this as an unshakable truth, some see it as pure folly. A Rumor of Angels tries to show us that it is the belief that matters. That the impossible is at our fingertips if only we’re willing to reach out and touch it. A fun, sort of existential, gently supernatural premise turned into movie of the week tripe. Tsk.

The 2001 production opens with young James (Trevor Morgan) staking out the rather rickety house of his windswept northeastern coastal town’s local eccentric. She catches him and he rides away in a panic. This scene holds a really promising start. Vanessa Redgrave as Maddy (the eccentric) is suitably wild-eyed and the photography (Roy H. Wagner) is really lovely. As James rides away, he enters a wood, complete with fog, which is beautifully shot from the point of view of a frightened child. Too bad this is the best complete scene in the entire film.

The following day, Maddy turns up at James’ house, demanding that he fix the fence he broke in his flight. James’ family consists of perpetually absent father Nathan (Ray Liotta), step-mother Mary (Catherine McCormack) and eccentric stoner Uncle Charlie (Ron Livingston). Charlie takes James out and gets him started on the fence and, lo and behold, James and Maddy soon strike up a fast friendship (oh, the shock! the surprise!). As the film progresses we learn of the deaths of Maddy’s son and James’ mother and watch as old woman and young boy help each other heal. Yawn.

A Rumor of Angels is absolutely predictable from one moment to the next. You may not be able to paint the final scene from the first, but the viewer is always two steps ahead of the film. The introduction of Maddy’s belief in angels throws a tiny wrench into the proceedings, but doesn’t amount to a significant deviation from the formula of an unlikely pair helping each other through their shared pain.

Every emotion is also overblown. Joy is rapturous (there is a scene of James and Maddy painting a fence that is eye rollingly over done), anger is fierce, grief paralyzing. Each just a cardboard cutout of what these emotions are, presumably, supposed to be like. This leads directly to pat and tidy conclusions, ridiculously simple breakthrough moments and movie of the week epiphanies complete with soaring, dramatic orchestral music (Tim Simonec) that’s so melodramatic it’s nearly funny. Nearly. James and Nathan finally confronting the death of James’ mother consists of a two minute “talk” which ends years of anger and grief. It’s all just far too easy. Which in the end makes the story incredibly weak.

Most of the performances in A Rumor of Angels are cut off at the knees by the screenplay (James Eric, Jamie Horton, Peter O’Fallon). Liotta, McCormack and Morgan can’t really be expected to pull decent performances out of such mundane characters and situations. The one major exception is the performance of Vanessa Redgrave as Maddy. I have no idea how she manages it, but she turns her eccentric old lady into a luminous, wounded and wise woman with sorrow swimming behind her brilliant blue eyes. Maddy has the potential to be an interesting and involving character and Redgrave pulls every last bit of emotional power out of the weak story she’s given. She’s a joy to watch, but even she can’t rescue an entire movie.

Also, for some reason, the peripheral character of Charlie is very well drawn. He’s eccentric, too, in his own way. Livingston doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but manages to make Charlie strange, likable and more than a little sad – without spelling out his each and every thought and feeling. It’s a well written character and a good performance that sticks out of the sappy soup like a life preserver. Sad when the one well written character is so completely out of place.

Basically what we get here from director O’Fallon is a predictable, sappy, melodramatic movie of the week with every conflict neatly resolved, every bit of hurt and anger neatly tucked away. Though Vanessa Redgrave is nearly heroic in her attempt to give this treacle some depth, she is ultimately thwarted by the sheer weight of dogged contrivances. But she gives it a valiant effort. Recommended only for staunch fans of Redgrave who can ignore everything but her time on the screen.

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