G.K. Chesterton once said that, "A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author."
He could have been talking about Angel Deverill, the sentimental young novelist in the middle of "Angel." This colorful, lush little movie is based on a novel by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not THAT Elizabeth Taylor), and Romola Garai brilliantly brings to life a protagonist who is swamped by her own imagination... until reality intrudes.
As a teenage girl in a dumpy little town, Angel Deverill (Garai) dreamed of becoming a famous, wealthy authoress. In time her sentimental, dramatic novels become huge bestsellers, and soon Angel is living the life she's always dreamed of -- a vast mansion, a luxurious life, and a neverending spring of melodramatic ideas.
Soon her real life becomes almost as dramatic as her fantasy life, especially when she falls in love with an impoverished painter named Esme (Michael Fassbender). But when Angel is confronted by death, marriage, war and the loss of her loved ones, she discovers that a dramatic life can also be the worst kind....
Rich ballrooms, sumptuous mansions, dramatic confessions of love, and endless swathes of gold, velvet and marble -- "Angel" is a luscious playground for the senses. For the first half, it seems like Angel is living out one of her own novels, but gradually a darker tone starts to creep into the story (such as when Esme tries to rape Angel).
And François Ozon has fun with the more ironic moments, mainly by pushing them over the top -- Angel and Esme's first kiss is set in a rainstorm, against a sunset AND with a rainbow overhead, and Angel greets Nora while posing in front of a harp in a flowing bright-pink gown. It's both amusing and heartbreaking to see Angel building up an iridescent bubble of make-believe to live in, only to have it popped by the real world.
Angel is not a heroine, really -- it doesn't take long for us to find out she's immature, selfish and insensitive, and a compulsive liar who constantly embroiders her mundane past. So it's a credit to Garai's talent that she actually makes us like Angel most of the time, putting her limpid eyes and trembly mouth to perfect use. And as her life falls apart, it's painful to see this child-woman being hammered by reality until she shatters.
Fassbender is as excellent but much darker, as we see the moody Esme moving from an edgy young painter into a self-destructive shell of his former self. And Lucy Russell has a good role as the devoted fan who gets to work for her favorite author, only to be subsumed into her life.
"Angel" is a tragic, dramatic, irony-soaked little story with a clueless anti-heroine -- but for Romola Garai's finest role, definitely a must-see.