Stemming the Tide
By Mary Dickson
When my friend was going through a divorce, he chalked it up to women being brain damaged.
"Does that make me brain damaged?" I asked.
"I'm sure if I knew you well enough you'd be brain damaged, too. Everyone's damaged once you get to know them."
Damaged people falling desperately in love is what Micheal Rymer's excruciatingly painful and gloriously beautiful film, Angel Baby, is all about. From the opening scene, these characters grab your heart and sweep you so completely into their story that you feel the intensity of their desire, their passion, their confusion and pain.
Kate and Harry, who are both schizophrenic, aren't confined by societal rules. They're drawn to each other by their hearts only. Their union is a completely natural pairing, without seduction or pretense.
They experience love, as Rymer says, in a "spiritual, heightened, almost astatic state." But you realize that for this couple there is no chance for happiness despite the purity of their love. The villain here is the sickness inside them.
Rymer's film swept the 1995 Australian Film Institute Awards, taking best film, director, original screenplay, actor and actress honors among others. It's an expertly made, I would even say flawless, film created with unusual sensitivity and compassion. Do yourself a favor and forget about dinosaurs, fast boats going nowhere and all the other meaningless distractions of summer. See this film about real life in all its complexities.
The subject of Michael Rymer's acclaimed film is not as extraordinary as is its execution. We've seen young schizophrenics in love in the winsome Benny and Joon. We've witnessed desperate lovers battling inner demons in Leaving Las Vegas. Rymer's film, however, is truly exceptional, bouncing between normalcy and madness with a rhythmic mysticism.
Rymer finds a perfect cast. John Lynch is utterly heartbreaking as the compassionate and loving Harry, who is immediately smitten with Kate when they meet at the "Clubhouse," their name for the outpatient facility where they gather for daily therapy and medication. Both Lynch and Jacqueline McKenzie as Kate offer disturbingly realistic portrayals of schizophrenics.
The fear and nervousness Lynch conveys throughout the film consistently hits the right note. He's never out of character. McKenzie's character is more borderline. Without her medication, Kate is condemned to an inner hell where even a chair or rollerblade becomes a threat.
While the device could seem comical, under Rymer's skilled direction, it becomes a very sweet, almost mystical experience. We begin to believe in the wheel of fortune as well. The messages, from "Run and Hide" to "Worst Case Scenario" and "You Are My Special Angel," are always apt.
Rymer tells a very unusual love story, that is both amazingly tender and fiercely sexual. Kate and Harry express what they feel without censure. They make love with a feverish desperation in phone booths, in alleys, under the viaduct and at home. They hungrily cling to each other as if life depends on the other's existence, which it ultimately does. "I need you," Harry cries to Kate. "Don't let me go," cries Kate in another scene as she clings to Harry after the voices return. What is love, after all, but stemming the tide of madness.
The medical system has little to offer these two except medication and hospitalization. The alternative is the goodwill of a well-intentioned but ultimately helpless family, or complete abandonment. Harry's understanding and caring brother, Morris (Colin Friels), and his wife, Louise (Deborah-Lee Furness), worry about the couple's determination to live life on their own terms, despite Harry's assurances.
Harry has taken a job as a computer programmer, while Kate takes in laundry, and they both take their medication. Life seems almost normal until Kate gets pregnant and refuses to see a doctor, although hormonal changes could cause her relapse into psychosis. Harry and Kate are convinced they can fight back the voices by giving up junk food, alcohol and their medication for the sake of the baby that has given them renewed purpose. "This child is special, because she chose us," Harry pleads with his brother. "She's a message from God."
Their subsequent descent into illness is so realistically filmed that you feel like you're being pulled into the abyss with them. They've tried so bravely, but so futilely to hold their fragile world together, that watching it crumble is utterly devastating because we so want them to succeed.
They've pretended to live in the real world of wife, job and baby, but the normalcy they so desperately crave eludes them despite the purity of their determination. All they have is love, and not even love can rescue them from despair. Don't miss Rymer's exquisite exploration of love and madness.
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