Angel of Mine review – Noomi Rapace radiates with dangerous longing

A standout performance from Rapace as a mother looking for her dead daughter lifts a psychological thriller that otherwise strains credulity

Maternal longing is a key theme in director Kim Farrant’s psychological thriller Angel of Mine, which takes what could have been a simple stalker movie premise and fills it out with an intense array of emotions. The film hinges on a head-turning, knife edge performance from Noomi Rapace, whose startled eyes and haunted countenance have an apparitional quality – destined to be burned into the audience’s psyche like a hot iron.

In this Melbourne-set feature, an adaptation of the 2008 French film L’Empreinte de L’Ang, Rapace plays Lizzie, whose young daughter died in a fire several years ago but who begins to entertain the possibility that she is still alive. Best-known for playing Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, Rapace radiates a sense of dangerous longing that washes over the film, covering it with an icky psychological residue. Her presence seems to inform every aspect of it – from Gabe Noel’s spooky score to Andrew Commis’s chilly cinematography.

Unresolved grief appears to have changed everything about Lizzie, including how she speaks, looks and thinks. Rapace skilfully projects a thoroughly unsettling kind of desperation, difficult to read and define. It’s the kind of desperation that gets you asking questions. What is this person capable of? Will she hurt herself, or others? Can her wounds ever be healed?

There are insinuations that Lizzie’s grip on reality might be tenuous. The first dialogue exchange transpires between Lizzie and her ex-husband Mike (Luke Evans), who mentions her recent mental health issues (“you haven’t been doing so great”) in a conversation about who ought to receive custody of their young son, Thomas (Finn Little, who played the titular role in Storm Boy).

Lizzie’s state of mind intensifies when she meets a married couple (Yvonne Strahovski and Richard Roxburgh) and their daughter, Lola (Annika Whiteley). She is struck by Lola’s resemblance to her deceased daughter and deploys a range of tactics to spend time with her, including pretending to be interested in buying the couple’s house and randomly turning up to various social engagements. Could this little girl possibly be ... no, that’s crazy, right?

Yvonne Strahovski and Annika Whiteley in Angel of Mine.
Yvonne Strahovski and Annika Whiteley in Angel of Mine. Photograph: MIFF

The trailer paints the film as a portrait of a stalker (“She watches ... She waits ... She’ll never stop”). Farrant certainly indulges in genre-ish thrills and spills, in the opening act in particular, with the kind of shrill, panicky vibe one expects from a nerve-jolting midnight movie. Horror-like escalations in the soundtrack, for instance, intensify the kind of prosaic moments that would ordinarily come and go without much impact – such as Rapace walking into a bedroom with a glass of wine, or a car travelling slowly down a suburban street.

Counter to this is a broader approach that is slower, quieter, more solemn. For a while the film seems to be treading water, with not much freshness or originality. The “is she crazy or not?” question intrigues but feels a little laboured, as if the director and screenwriters (David Regal and Luke Davies, who was Oscar-nominated for Lion) were buying time until an inevitable revelation.

Farrant’s previous feature film was the outback-set drama Strangerland, which also explores relationship issues between parents and children in cryptic ways (with Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes playing the mum and dad of kids who go missing in the desert). Strangerland works best if interpreted as a mystery about human behaviour: why, in dramatic situations, pressed-upon people can react in bizarre ways, further intensifying their circumstances and setting off a chain reaction whereby the “right” or justified thing to do becomes increasingly muddled.

Angel of Mine is far more obviously a mystery, but both films contain surprising moments that force the audience into a double take. In Strangerland, these moments include Kidman’s frazzled character walking in the buff down the main road of a small town. In Angel of Mine there is a bigger event, more integral to the overarching story – too important, and divulged too late in the game, to reveal here.

In Farrant’s films these “what the?” moments have a thrilling but destabilising effect. In Angel of Mine, the aforementioned revelation is complicated by multiple kinds of plausibility issues. You could say these sorts of narrative pressure points illuminate the vagaries of human behaviour, or you could call them shocks that jolt us out of the experience.

If some elements of Angel of Mine are simplistic, Rapace’s magnetic performance is anything but. She pushes the film towards complexity and gives it nuances that wouldn’t be there otherwise. As her acting gets more intense, with Lizzie skittering on the edge of emotional oblivion, Rapace seems to lift everybody’s game. The writing feels sharper, the direction more concentrated. That doleful, desperate, daunted face will linger in the memory for a long time.

• Angel of Mine is showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival and is scheduled for general release on 30 August


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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