I am typically loathe to post spoilers in my reviews, and sometimes shy away from precise plot descriptions in a perhaps over zealous attempt to avoid doing so. Therefore, I'll tell you up front that this paragraph is going to close with a minor, but important, spoiler. I'm posting it because I think that some people, especially parents like I am, may stay away from Fallen Angel if they read a plot précis that talks about child sacrifice, abduction and the like. I know that, for example, I simply will not even watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit because it focuses on crimes against innocent children so often. I have enough to worry about in real life about my kids without visiting extracurricular worries on my addled psyche. And so, here goes: the child abducted in the first episode of Fallen Angel escapes relatively unharmed.
For those who have skipped ahead to this paragraph, welcome back. Fallen Angel, based on a trilogy of novels by Andrew Taylor, does indeed deal, at least tangentially, with child sacrifice and, in its first episode, child abduction, but it really is a more introspective look at what forces help shape the twisted mind of a psychopath. The three episode show is notable in that it works backward in time, starting in the present and then slowly delving further into its anti-heroine's past to attempt to uncover some root causes for her despicable behavior. If its pop psychology leanings are never totally successful in helping to illuminate why Rosemary (Emilia Fox in an absolutely riveting performance) turns to a life of killing and other mayhem, it nonetheless provides a dramatic analog to slowly peeling back the layers of an onion to reveal something rotten and decrepit at its center. If the who is never in doubt, and the why is not really completely explained (and perhaps behavior this psychotic never can be), Fallen Angel is nonetheless one of the most consistently intriguing and wonderfully self-referential thrillers to come down the pike in a long, long while.
Though in an extra, director David Drury states he thinks Fallen Angel's trek backwards through time is unique, it of course is a time-honored (no pun intended) tradition that has been used by everyone from Kaufman and Hart in Merrily We Roll Along to, more recently, Lost. Much like the island castaway drama, Fallen Angel magnificently revisits several characters, props and set pieces at various points along the timeline, helping to give unexpected facets to an ever-evolving, if fractured, jewel. The first episode deals with Rosie abducting the child of a policeman and his wife, a newly invested Curate at an Anglican church. Characters introduced in this first episode who will continue to show up (in younger forms) in subsequent episodes are Michael, the policeman, a officious Vicar (Charles Dance) who it turns out has a very personal connection to Rosie (revealed in a nice twist at the end of the first episode), and Michael's mother, Wendy (Clare Holman).
The subsequent two episodes delve back into Rosie's teen years and then her very early childhood to attempt to unravel the twisted strands of her fragile psychology. Whether her "bad seed"-ism was a case of nature or nurture is never fully explicated, and really doesn't matter in the long run. What Fallen Angel does magnificently is unwind an Agatha Christie-sized labyrinth of transgenerational connections that ultimately involves a long ago disgraced Vicar (a supposed Satanist with the not very subtle surname Youlgreave--think Aleister Crowley with a clerical collar), as well as Wendy's former relationship with Rosie's family.
Fallen Angel is most definitely an actors' piece, and the telefilm is not let down by its performers in that regard. The main focus is of course Emilia Fox as Rosie, who emerges as a kind of distaff Norman Bates--sweetly demure, even chaste, on the outside, but get out of her way if she's crossed. If Rosie the character's religious obsessions are never really fully developed (in fact, in the third episode, a quick cut between a crucified Jesus' stigmata and her grandfather's burned hand is patently ridiculous), Fox illuminates the dark and dank corners of Rosie's very creepy character in an unforgettable manner. Her bizarre, almost automaton like movements, a glare you'll never wipe from your memory, coupled with quick about faces as she becomes sunny and carefree in the twinkling of a malevolent eye help make Rosie a character that stays with you long after the final credits have rolled.
Incredibly matching Fox tooth and severed-hand nail is the absolutely remarkable tot Tigerlily Hutchinson, playing Rosie at the age of 5. This young girl is frighteningly prescient, completely believable and as outright scary as any kid you've ever come across in your daily travels. My hunch is the young Ms. Hutchinson has a stellar career ahead of her if she stays in the acting field.
Dance is, of course, one of the finest actors around, able to convey both moral turpitude and that rather peculiar British arrogance in one deft lift of an eyebrow. His David Byfield is a study in contrasts--overwhelmed by lusts, and yet completely repressed, there for his congregation while simultaneously ignoring the very real needs of his wife and child. It's to Dance's credit that a character so palpably unlikable at times isn't totally repellent, and is actually quite vulnerable and understandable a great deal of the time.
The rest of the supporting cast is uniformly superb, including Holman as Wendy, whose story isn't completely explored, with some long-held secrets finally divulged, until the third episode. Also doing great work are Jade Sharif as the kidnapped daughter and Sheila Hancock as Lady Youlgreave, the imperious sister-in-law of the disgraced priest from long ago.
This is an unusually beautifully shot and staged piece of television filmmaking. Drury crafts a number of really elegantly flowing shots throughout the three episodes that help give it a sweep and impressive ambience that lifts it above the realm of the "shilling shocker"that Lady Youlgreave bemoans at one point. If the subject matter itself is alternately lurid and titillating, Drury's expert staging of it gives the telefilm a grander feel and perhaps even a nobler purpose as it attempts to illuminate the dark corners of Rosie's soul.
This is an exceptionally good looking telefilm, and the enhanced 1.78:1 image is nicely crisp and detailed, with excellent color and contrast. Some really gorgeous shots of the sylvan English countryside help to paint a nice counterpoint to the scary goings-on underneath it all.
The standard stereo soundtrack is similarly excellent, if not outrageously inventive. Dialogue is front and center and Alan Parker's moody minor theme underscore appears in various guises throughout the film. English subtitles are available, and I must admit I had to turn them on a time or two to get the gist of some peculiarly British verbiage.
An excellent 45 minute documentary supplements Disc Two, with some interviews with cast and crew, as well as some well-meaning psychobabble by some contributing psychoanalysts.
Fallen Angel may fail as psychoanalysis, but it is one of the most compelling television movies I've seen recently, wrapped up in a fun and revelatory backwards timeline that keeps the viewer guessing what things that have already happened will ultimately mean. Highlighted by outstanding performances all around, a sure directorial hand, this is high minded creepiness that will linger with the viewer long after the film has ended. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet