Angels in America
HBO Video DVD (region 2) £24.99
Angels in America is one of those rare life-enhancing experiences that theatre, and in this case film, at its very best, can occasionally offer. The two-DVD set lasts just under six hours and, like the finest of books, you resent the moments when you have to interrupt viewing to do basic things like eating.
With its massive budget and big names, it was always likely that this film would be successful but for a TV mini-series to be nominated for no fewer than 21 Emmys and to win a record-breaking 11 suggests that it is very much out of the ordinary.
Tony Kushner's pair of plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, were regarded as some of the finest of the late twentieth-century and Mike Nichols' loving recreation, with a script by the playwright, does them full justice.
It is clear from the opening scenes when a camera allows the audience to fly like an angel through the sky of New York City that this will be a sumptuous visual delight. It is also far more than that.
In simple terms, the plot tells the stories of half-a-dozen individuals at turning points in their lives.
Justin Kirk, giving possibly the best performance of all as the dying Prior, and Jewish Lou (Ben Shenkman) have been lovers for four a half years but Aids tragically separates them.
In a different way, homosexuality divides Mormon couple, chilly Joe and Valium-wrecked Harper, played by Patrick Wilson and the particularly impressive, Mary-Louise Parker, and introduces Meryl Streep, already seen as an ageing rabbi, as a central character playing Joe's caring Mom from Salt Lake City.
Wily Al Pacino plays proudly ruthless, real life lawyer Roy Cohn "the pole star of human evil". He is a man who links the McCarthyism of the 1950s with Ronald Reagan's equally corrupt America in 1985. The power of his personality is amazing and when his closet philandering eventually leads to Aids, you almost believe his self-denial.
His comeuppance is eventually delivered by the ghost of executed spy, Ethel Rosenberg, yet another Streep incarnation. Surprisingly, one genuinely feels sorry for this plucky devil, which is a compliment to Pacino.
This may make Angels In America sound grittily realistic, and it is. However, it also has a rich vein of Magic Realism personified, if that is the right term, by two types of angels, nurses played by Emma Thompson and Jeffrey Wright and the more ethereal.
This is where Mike Nichols has most fun and probably uses up a fair chunk of his $65 million budget. Emma Thompson doubles as a gloriously white winged angel, whose role is to bring the prophet Prior to heaven, which he rejects showing his love of earthly experience, however trying. He is also haunted by a couple of ancestors, remarkably played by anonymous British theatrical knights who do not receive a mention in the credits. In any other movie, Sir Michael Gambon and Sir Simon Callow would have their names above the titles!
Where Angels in America really scores is in the way in which it presents a total view of American life in the Reaganite late-Eighties. Kushner makes it clear that with the death of liberalism, America may have its born-again Christians but God has left the party.
He does this from a gay perspective and shows us how all-pervading Aids was at that time, as damaging as the hole in the ozone layer. It succeeds through rich characterisation and magical invention, showing worlds colliding and overlapping. By the film's optimistic conclusion, you will almost feel as if you had actually experienced it in person.
Angels in America could really give the mini-series a bad reputation. These are supposed to be poorly acted, low-budget bodice-rippers filling undesirable TV slots around the world.
This is a film of the very highest quality, packed with beautiful images, tremendous acting and tear-jerking drama. It also represents a real bargain, costing no more on the Internet than many single DVD movies. Buy it as a Christmas present and you will make friends. Alternatively, why not treat yourself?
You can buy "Angels In America" from our bookshop for £18.74.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher