Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"This is high Gothic melodrama by the numbers."

Little-used today, angelica was still popular both as a culinary ingredient and as a medicinal herb in the mid 19th Century. Amongst other things, it was used to stimulate sexual desire in women, but it is poisonous in pregnancy.

The Angelica (Jena Malone) in this film is a woman, but this is not principally her story: it is her mother's. Constance, who recounts her tale on her deathbed, is a woman who thinks she has found the perfect marriage when she captures the heart of well to do scientist Joseph (Ed Stoppard), who cares more about her curious nature than her lowly social status. But after she suffers a painful and dangerous childbirth, their doctor warns them that, for her life's sake, she must not get pregnant again. With reliable contraception non-existent and awareness of alternative sexual options limited even for a biologist (who does, to be fair, specialise in microbes), the couple are faced with a distressing situation, the once intense physical passion between them having no more outlet.

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In this situation, what was sweet turns bitter. Joseph is expected to take his pleasure with sex workers but finds the prospect unsatisfactory. After some research, he suggests oral sex, but this time Constance's desire has cooled and the idea of doing something associated with such social opprobrium repels her. She makes excuses, devoting herself to her daughter, cossetting the child in the process. But there is still sexual passion in her, and with no other outlet it begins to manifest in dangerous ways. She becomes obsessed with the idea that something is stalking the house, threatening Angelica. Something masculine, something sexual. Does Angelica see it too, or has he mother merely borrowed ideas from childish imagination? Is Constance losing her mind? Is there really a supernatural force at work? Is there a more mundane kind of danger which Constance sees in this way because she can't bear the truth?

This is high Gothic melodrama by the numbers. In Arthur Phillips' cleverly structured novel there was humour in that it was necessary to keep aspects of the tale familiar in order to layer it with playful complications and shifts of perspective. Here there is much less of that (though consultant spiritualist Anna (played by a formidable Janet McTeer, who implies an interest in Constance that incorporates both sexual desire and a kind of evangelical feminism) challenges some of what has gone before, and Angelica eventually reveals herself to be more than just a passive recipient of others' narratives. The result of this diminished complexity is a film that feels rather thin, gorgeous in its trappings but internally barren.

The removal of the story's key structures also causes problems with pacing, leading the film to sag a little in the second half. Whilst Malone has substance when permitted to reveal it, hers is too often the shrill voice associated in the period with the very diagnosis of hysteria. A scene in which, fearful of gaslighting, Constance intentionally restrains herself to deliver a terse and calculated performance, reveals much more interesting aspects of her character, not least her shrewdness. When reduced to being a damsel in distress - albeit quite possibly a dangerous one - she is unable to rise above the limits of the material.

For fans of the Gothic there are many sources of pleasure here. Malone and Stoppard have a natural chemistry which is, if anything, understated in their happier scenes together, and Stoppard gives his character just the right level of creepiness as the plot develops. Eliza Holland Madore is good as the young Angelica, letting us see a calculating mind rather than mere sweetness. The costuming, score and set design are all delightful; it may well be the case that shooting in a house with its own reputation for being haunted adds a little something. In sum, however, this film falls short of its potential, delivering only passing pleasure when it might have inspired lasting passion.

Reviewed on: 14 Nov 2017
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In Victorian London, puritanical doctors prescribe abstinence to a young couple after the life-threatening birth of their daughter. Sexual repression leads to obsession and opens the door to paranormal phenomena

Director: Mitchell Lichtenstein

Writer: Mitchell Lichtenstein

Starring: Jena Malone, Janet McTeer, Dick Pope, Tovah Feldshuh

Year: 2015

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: US


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