October 6, 2010

Queer Review: Angels In America

Angels In America was a TV mini series, produced by HBO and based on the Tony Kushner play of the same name. The plot is an elaborate affair, focusing in on the evolving AIDS crisis of the mid 1980s and featuring an ensemble cast of fictional and non-fictional characters.

Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) has just been diagnosed with AIDS and now faces a long, agonizing slide towards death. His Jewish lover, Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman) finds himself unable to cope with watching Prior die, abandons him, eventually hooking up with Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson). Joe is friends with Roy Cohen (Al Pacino) who is offering Joe a high placed position, which would force him to move from New York City to Washington. When he discuses Cohen's proposal with his wife Harper (Mary-Louise Parker) she refuses to go along with him due to her severe depression and anxiety. Joe Pitt is a closeted gay man because of his firm religious beliefs and their relationship is deteriorating as a result. Roy Cohen is also closeted, but his reasons have more to do with wanting to maintain his high social status and influence.

While all of this is going on, Prior Walter is receiving visions of Angels (Emma Thompson) proclaiming him to be a prophet. As the plot progresses it is revealed that God has abandoned heaven and the Angels blame mankind for this. Their message therefore is for humans to stop changing or "moving". Along with the assistance of his friend Belize (Jeffery Wright) and Joe Pitt's mother, Hannah (Meryl Streep) Prior must decide to whether or not to believe these visions, which have many implications for the future.

Roy Cohen is also receiving visions, but of a much more ominous type. As he too begins to die from AIDS, Cohen is being haunted by Ethyl Rosenberg (also played by Meryl Streep), who was executed for being a communist spy and blames Roy for her death. It is worth noting that Cohen and Rosenberg are based on the real life individuals who share their names.

Thematically, the movie is asking questions regarding the role of religion in a modern society that is struggling with acceptance and tolerance of all people as well as how it is possible to live when one is dying from a disease that has no true cure and results in slow, agonizing death for almost all its victims. As for the religious concepts, the movie relies a great deal on Mormon mythology, in fact all of the Pitts are all devout Mormons.

At the end of the series, a note of hope is offered up for AIDS sufferers. In a lesser movie, this might not have worked, but it does here due to the graphic and realistic way the ravaging effects of AIDS has on its victims - which was practically a death sentence at the time when treatments were less effective. I made the mistake of trying to watch the movie while eating dinner. Not since I watched The X-Files in high-school, have I found myself looking away from the screen so often while trying not to up-chuck.

The story is effective in it's portrayal of issues affecting queers - religion, acceptance and tolerance, living with HIV/AIDS. The acting by the leads is excellent, without a weak performance to be found. I was particularly fond of Meryl Streep's performances as Ethyl and Hannah and Joe Kirk as a man who has been abandoned as he faces a terrible death.

I would recommend this movie to those who are interested in dramas that portray real issues and weighty ideas, rather then simply skimming over them to get to more exploitative material. Ultimately, this is a rare gem, a well made movie with messages and themes, that is not afraid to say what it has to say.

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