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Angels in America (2003)

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 352 minutes

US Certificate: NR UK Certificate: 15


Do you believe in angels? You should, because every time someone says they don’t, one of them dies. Or is that fairies I’m thinking of? Either way, if you’re a non-believer then you’re not really entering into the spirit of ‘Angels in America’, Tony Kushner’s brain-boggling play brought to the screen here in six hour-long episodes by director Mike Nichols.

It’s set in the politically-charged Reagan-administered mid-80s, and centres around the AIDS epidemic sweeping New York’s gay community. One man to have found himself at the business end of this terrifying plague is Prior Walter (Justin Kirk). When his condition takes a turn for the worst and he has to be hospitalized, a relationship dating back four years isn’t enough to stop boyfriend Louis (Ben Shenkman) from turning around and doing a runner – straight into the arms, would you believe, of closet-dwelling Mormon Joe (Patrick Wilson). Prior, understandably, isn’t best chuffed, and before he knows where he is he’s taking it out on the large angel (Emma Thompson) who starts invading his room at night and yelling nasties at him. Ah, but is it just an exceptionally elaborate series of dreams, or is he really some sort of lank-haired prophet?

Prior’s far from the only one with problems. Joe, for example, has been spending his life fighting tooth and nail against his gayness, but when mad missus Harper (Mary-Louise Parker) finally topples over the loony ledge, he loses his grip on all things straight and embarks on a man-hunt. Then there’s Joe’s boss, the infamous Commie-hating lawyer Roy Cohn (Al Pacino, sporting a Fabrizio Ravanelli “silver fox” hairdo). Despite his best efforts to keep it concealed, he’s partial to a bit of the old man-love himself, and now he too is suffering from what Chris Morris calls “Bad Aids”. Honestly, you’d think it was homosexuality itself that was catching, so all-encompassing does this make it seem. Throw Meryl Streep into the mix as Joe’s long-suffering mum, and you’ve got yourself one Helluva miserable bunch.

This multiple award-snatching epic wanders through more of modern life’s big issues than I could hope to list, and with its mammoth running time it has plenty of room to do so. As a result, it’s also massively self-indulgent, and I couldn’t help but think that, cut down to form a one-piece movie rather than something needing to be divided up into a televised mini-series, it might have been a more refined and to-the-point piece of work.

Thankfully, writer Kushner injects a fair amount of humour, which keeps things palatable and prevents the entire project from turning into one big chore (there’s a great bit where Thompson’s imposing angel character demands Prior dig up his kitchen tiles, but he refuses because he’ll lose his deposit on the flat). It also features inch-perfect performances from all involved (many of the cast play multiple roles), and extremely ambitious direction from Nichols (sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t).

In the end, though, I was left unsatisfied. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the conclusion renders the whole thing pointless, but it certainly doesn’t seem to match up to the weight and power of what’s gone before it. “Damp squib” might be the best way of putting it – but a striking one, all the same.

It's Got: Pill-popping, strolls in the park, a visit from a ghostly Michael Gambon, and a man telling an angel to “shoo”.

It Needs: To have spent some of its clearly substantial budget on a more authentic-looking pair of angel’s wings. Seriously, they don’t even flap when she moves up and down!

DVD Extras Two discs, no extras. DVD Extras Rating: 0/10


A bit like those angel’s wings, it’s sporadically up-lifting in a way that doesn’t quite make sense – but more often than that it’s a maudlin chore with too scant a reward.