Angel Baby

Angel Baby (Michael Rymer, 1995) wr. Michael Rymer, dp Ellery Ryan; John Lynch, Jacqueline McKenzie, Colin Friels, Deborra-Lee Furness; schizophrenics don't take their medication (when she gets pregnant), go 'mad', suicide; 100 min.

In the struggle between people with mental illness and the system, the system wins.

A film in which two people are not accepted by the mainstream is Angel Baby—but not because of what they look like on the outside: here the problem is what people perceive as what is inside their heads. The two main characters, Kate (Jacqueline McKenzie) and Harry (John Lynch), are diagnosed as being “mentally ill”. The film, as discussed elsewhere, is ambivalent about this.7 On the one hand, it gives a clear cause for Kate being traumatised by appalling life experience: she has been raped by her father; she tells Harry it was “like death”. Something also seems to have happened which involved doctors and blood, as she is paranoid about both. She may perhaps have had a termination of the pregnancy caused by the rape, or perhaps she was a virgin, and bled—but these are pure speculations. However, she does have scarring on her wrists, indicating an attempt at suicide. We don’t know much about Harry’s background, except that he too has similar scars.
On the other hand, there is a good deal of talk in the film, especially from the medical characters, about schizophrenia as not only a disease but also as congenital. When it is discovered that Kate is pregnant, Doctors Norberg and Singani (Robyn Nevin and Alex Pinder) tell her, “There is a real chance of relapse into psychosis”—apparently just from the pregancy as such: “What if your voices come back?” Not only that but “There is a chance that the child will inherit your illness”. So, although an etiology of post-traumatic stress is clearly established, there is also apparently no doubt that Kate has a supposedly congenital disease. And for most of the film, this is the line that is taken by everyone, including the main characters. Kate is seen at one point reading a book called Surviving Schizophrenia, with sections on “congenital anomalies” and “birth defects”. Shortly afterwards they flush their prescription drugs down the toilet: “Do you want our baby to be born with Stelazine in her veins?” From that point on, everything goes wrong for the couple. They each have crazy episodes and end up in a locked ward, from which they have to escape to go and live for a time in a squat, emphasising even more strongly their position as outcasts. It’s not long before Harry decides to start taking his medication again, and he goes to get Kate’s as well: “She needs her medication”.
The film’s opening sequence clearly establishes the theme of madness as a social problem, before Kate has even been introduced. Harry is discovered slowing turning with his arms outstretched in a heavy shower of rain, opening and closing his mouth, in what will turn out to be a recurring motif. He is joined by three other “clients” from the Club House, a well-known clinic in Melbourne: Dave (David Argue), Rowan (Geoff Brooks) and Frank (Humphrey Bower). They catch a bus and go to a bowling alley, and in a sequence recalling films like The Dream Team (Howard Zieff, 1989) and, before that, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975), they exhibit “crazy” behaviour. The camera is positioned to one side of the top of the lane, motionless, so that each “bowler” can be seen to enter the scene one after another and perform. Frank does bowl his ball, but from a standing position, and without any bowling style. Next is Dave, who appears to be going to bowl conventionally, but then aggressively throws the ball overarm, again from a standing position, and follows that up with giving the ball the finger. Finally, Rowan rolls the ball gently down the lane and then follows it down, to the consternation of the manager of the alley (Peter Sardi). Harry goes down to get him and Dave bowls a ball knocking them off their feet for what he calls a “Strike!” The manager throws them out, with some difficulty. Although the film was sold as a love story (“In a world that says they can’t, Harry and Kate will risk everything, to prove they can”), it is also a social problem film, raising many questions about how to deal with people who are “different”. Garry Gillard, The social problem film, Ten Types of Australia Film.

See also: Garry Gillard & Lois Achimovich 2003, “The representation of madness in some Australian films”, Journal of Critical Psychology Counselling and Psychotherapy, 3, 1, Spring: 9-19.

... this is not the film of unredeemed dreariness that story line would suggest; I have noticed in any number of Australian films a pull toward human comedy, an appreciation for the quirks and eccentric fillips of characters who may be doomed but rage cheerfully against the dying of the light. Even in their final downward spiral, Kate (Jacqueline McKenzie) and Harry (John Lynch) see hopeful omens. ... The movie avoids many of the cliches often found in pictures about mental illness. The professionals in the film, for example, are sensitive and competent. And in the film's early scenes, it looks as if Harry and Kate might indeed be successful in their quest for love. Roger Ebert.


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