Acorn Media // 2007 // 207 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // May 1st, 2009
The making of a murderer.
Based on best-selling crime author Andrew Taylor's trilogy of Roth novels, Fallen Angel is a literal (perhaps too much) adaptation of the beloved mysteries, weaving unnecessarily complex family and psychological drama into a shifting mosaic of psychotic motivations and murder. Adapted into a three-part series by ITV, Fallen Angel is decent as made-for-television mystery adaptations go, but probably nowhere near as engaging as the novels.
When a young girl goes missing in North London, a distraught family waits anxiously by the phone, desperate for any information. Her father, Michael Appleton (Oliver Dimsdale, RocknRolla) and his mother Wendy (Clare Holman, Inspector Morse) reveal a dark family secret that the abduction may be tied into sordid events of the past. The police chase a serial killer known only as "Angel" around the city, collecting children's severed body parts -- but none of them the Appleton girl.
Who is Angel? The Appletons believe she is Rosie Byfield (Emilia Fox, Silent Witness), a family secret come back to life to torment them from beyond the (supposed) grave. But Rosie is dead...or is she? She did swear revenge upon them after Michael testified as a young boy against her in a murder trial, putting her into a mental institution. Slowly, we learn more about Rosie, about her motivations and obsessions, her unique and damaged past that may or may not have lead her astray as a fallen angel...
Endlessly twisting and complex, Fallen Angel takes the interesting angle of telling the story of Rosie Byfield's life in reverse chronological order; we meet her as a deranged killer and travel backwards through her life in an attempt to understand her motivations as expressed by the guilt of her family and friends. The trilogy of novels is represented here in its three parts, each in the way of separate chapters: "The Four Last Things," "The Judgement of Strangers," and "The Office of the Dead." It is impossible to understand the first chapter until you've slogged through the other two, which made viewing Fallen Angel a daunting task on DVD. Being unfamiliar with the author or the novels, I jumped into the first installment and felt completely disoriented and confused, having no idea who all these people where or their relationships to one another. Each separate installment, when taken on its own merit, is fairly banal and aggravatingly dull, but when combined into a trilogy of murderous intent, becomes noticeably more interesting and engaging. I was amused to find how much I disliked the first episode, "The Judgement of Strangers" after my initial viewing, but, in retrospect, appreciated and enjoyed it much more after having sat through all three.
Fallen Angel is not particularly complex or dense in of itself; the story is relatively straightforward, but great care has gone into giving audiences only snippets of information until the last painful second, drawing out the suspense and tension. Knowing from the get-go "whodunit" so to speak, we are left with instead trying to understand motivation, to piece together why a young, beautiful woman would act so catastrophically, and in this regard Fallen Angel does succeed. We see the film primarily through the eyes of Wendy Appleton, and even when recollections are not hers, they are being told to her; we get little punctuated flashes of memory, advanced teasers of sequences to come, and they are maddening. With every little bit of the puzzle, we re-examine young Rosie, try to wrap our heads around who she is and why she acts the way she does, but only when the last piece falls into place do we finally breathe a content sigh and accept it. Again, it is that rare situation where the sum of the parts equals a respectable result for Fallen Angel; once the final credits roll, we finally get the whole picture. It isn't always a particularly satisfying picture, as one has to ask themselves why a family allowed this quite clearly deranged little girl to run about hacking torsos at will for two decades...but that's the British for you. Keep calm and carry on, and all that.
Pacing presents a problem to Fallen Angel, as the British do prefer their mystery yarns to unfold at a slow, deliberate pace, much to the contrary of the tastes of North Americans. We like to see our dead bodies upfront, and then spend an enjoyable hour watching crime scene folk spray magic liquid on bodily fluids with ultraviolet light, and generate CGI constructs of blueprints of walls that no computer would ever be able to do in real life. None of that muckety-muck here, I'm afraid. This is good old-fashioned Miss Marple crime solving, spearheaded by the plucky Wendy Appleton, who pieces together the mystery of her missing granddaughter by reading The Bible and looking for religious iconography. Yes. As a result of the languid pace, attention spans do waver, especially during the first installment, which is unexpectedly dull, despite having the most amount of "action" in it -- kidnapping, chase sequences, forcible containment, frantic police, distraught family, etcetera.
Fallen Angel is not a horrible waste of a few hours if you enjoy mysteries and appreciate a good tale unwinding. Production values are acceptable, considering its made-for-television format, and Emilia Fox gives a strong performance as the doe-eyed Rosie, beautiful, murderous, and completely insane. Solid performances are also given by Clare Holman as Wendy and Charles Dance as the naughty vicar. Most of the cast at some point are subjected to atrociously silly wigs and makeup to make them look younger and/or older, depending on which point in Rosie's timeline we are visiting, but it all looks okay in the end. I admit, I figured I'd be panning this title something fierce; I admit to falling asleep in the first act, being so confused and bored by the whole affair -- I had to get up and check to make sure I hadn't accidentally turned on to the second or third episodes as an explanation to where the hell the plot had gone. Once you make it to the end, the investment of time and energy does pay off, I concede, but I do prefer my dramatics to be a bit less taxing and demanding of audiences.
On DVD, the presentation of Fallen Angel is flat and unimpressive. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, detail is relatively clean, but colors are muted and tones are flat. Black levels are poor, and grain, massive edge artifacts and ghosting are noticeable throughout the presentation. The British bang out made-for-television movies mercilessly fast, and Acorn hasn't done much to clean or touch up the source material. Audio is a mediocre stereo channel with clear dialogue, little bass response and a moody string score that sets the somber tone throughout. Subtitles for English SDH are included.
The two-disc set contains one extra, a 45-minute behind-the-scenes documentary interviewing cast and crew about the making of Fallen Angel and its adaptation to the small screen. Ironically, it has better visual and sound quality than the feature itself. No other extras are included.
Points for narrative bravery, but much of what was apparently successful in the Roth trilogy of novels does not seem to translate quite as well to the screen. We know exactly who the killer is from the start, and reverse-engineering the story on-screen does not allow for the same kind of dramatic tension that a skilled mystery writer can generate with the pen and the paper. In every installment, dead bodies show up, and surprise, surprise, guess who killed them? It's always Rosie. Understanding why is interesting and engaging, but only to a point. The lack of genuine, old-fashioned dramatic tension and backwards narrative keeps Fallen Angel from appealing to wider audiences.
An interesting and unique narrative yarn, Fallen Angel is decent fare as far as made-for-television mystery adaptations go, but I'd wager the novels would give a more nuanced and complex thrill to audiences than this adaptation. If you like to unravel psychological motivations for murderous behavior in reverse chronological order, or prefer your serial killers of the female persuasion, give Fallen Angel a try. At the very least, it's something original.
Not guilty, but borderline. The court is feeling merciful today.
Review content copyright © 2009 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 207 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Andrew Taylor Official Site