In a society that demonizes their desire and blames them for their every tragedy, any woman might feel like a criminal. In the sensual and unnerving adaptation of Arthur Phillips’ novel Angelica, Victorian shopgirl Constance (Jena Malone) strives to be a devoted wife and mother, yet is alternately scorned as either a frigid bitch or a stupid slut. Yet in this seemingly impossible patriarchal predicament, she discovers a queer path to salvation.
Adapted by Teeth writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein, this sexy yet sinister thriller follows Constance from her humble beginnings in a stationary shop to a posh home with a dashing doctor as a husband (Ed Stoppard). At first, she and Dr. Joseph Barton are very much in love, and positively ravenous for each other, tearing into each other’s many layers of period attire with relish. But once the birth of their daughter nearly kills Constance, doctors sternly warn her “God does not intend all women to be mothers,” and as far as sex goes, “You are to desist entirely!”
The doctor then counsels Joseph to “take (his) pleasure elsewhere.” But Joseph will not. What he will do is pressure Constance into a sexual encounter that once more risks her life, this time with a painful miscarriage. From there, her doctors are really angry, scolding her, “You choose your own desire at your family’s expense!” So within the first year of her marriage, she is damned. If she rejects her husband’s sexual advances, she is a bad wife. If she gives in to them, she’s a bad mother. Her conflict is exacerbated by an ominous presence that hovers over her daughter’s bed in the dark of night. What appears to be giant bacteria that swarm into the shape of an aroused man stalks young Angelica, sending Constance into an increasing panic that spurs her sulking husband to think her hysterical.
Is there a malevolent spirit haunting her home? Is it a manifestation of a threat real or imagined? Is it a warning? Angelica won’t offer an easy answer. But a framing device where Constance’s grown daughter listens to her deathbed recounting of this harrowing time promises an escape from these male threats and misogynistic admonishments. Thrillingly, this escape comes in the form of Anne Montague, a towering Janet McTeer as an actress turned medium.
Brought to clear the home of pesky spirits, Anne quickly becomes a true friend to Constance, giving her an ear to her fears, a shoulder to cry on, and a big spoon to cuddle. Their queer romance blossoms among the trauma and tragedy of Constance’s dying marriage. And one standout scene subtly suggests this is Constance’s path to freedom and joy.
While Joseph is away, Constance invites Anne to a private dinner. Afterwards, they let their hair down, Anne explains with a sly smile about how women must behave around men. Ladies must “glide” as they walk within their big, modest skirts. Men cannot bear to think of women possessing legs. It’s a thought all too provocative and alarming. With a hardy laugh and a thunking of her boots upon the fine table, Anne declares that when women are apart from men, they have legs! The implication is one of autonomy, the freedom to move, and of sexual agency, for legs lead to the garden Constance has been told to keep “closed.” Without men around, there’s “no danger,” no need to hide our legs or close them. When Constance kicks her own feet up on the table, she’s overcome with the outrageous exhilaration of this little defiance. In it burns hope.
As Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Tovah Feldshuh pops in to join as a smirking maid, you cheer for their Victorian girls night. You laugh with them, but in the same instant your heart aches, because this is such a small rebellion. However, this is a story told in flashback, so from its first scene of a grown Angelica (also Malone) being called home by her trusted Anne, you know Constance will somehow escape the masculine malevolence that would doom her. Nonetheless, her journey is unsettling, erotic, frightening, and fractured. As her encounters with this mysterious specter become more intense and violent, one is forced to question how reliable a narrator Constance may be. Not all of Angelica’s steps are masterful, as its third act gets murky, curious questions linger. But all this mood and mystery swells to a fevered and disturbing finale, then leaves audiences with a heady blend of exhilaration and uncertainty. Which feels strangely fitting.
Angelica is open in select theaters. One note: Avoid the trailer.
It’s a poor reflection of this film’s quality.