Published April 1, 1997
One ought, I think, to be suspicious of films about mental illness. They nearly always call on us to pity and thus to condescend to their characters. Such feelings are not those elicited by great art, which requires us to recognize in the characters an essential likeness to ourselves. But Angel Baby by Michael Rymer, like other recent (and good) Australian pictures such as Shine and Cosi, treats mental illness as a metaphor for universal experiences. Rymer makes the schizophrenia of Harry Goodman (John Lynch) and Kate Deier (Jacqueline McKenzie) almost irrelevant to their story, which is about love and purpose and the sense that love gives us all of being somehow chosen and favored by God—and maybe of being crazy too.
Kate explains to Harry about her guardian angel, Astral, who communicates with her through the titles, sayings, proverbs etc. which contestants on the Australian version of “Wheel of Fortune” attempt to decipher. When Harry, who believes instantly and totally in Kate’s angel, asks it “if we were going to get together,” Kate flies into another fit. “You can’t ask that! This isn’t a game!” she cries, insisting on the seriousness of what to an outsider looks precisely like one. But when the clues to the “Wheel of Fortune” board reveal the title “You are my special angel” it comes to both of them as a confirmation of the divine blessing on their union. “Is he the one?” Kate asks Astral when they are alone together. “Because this is very scary for me.”
Hesitantly, but with increasing confidence in their own feelings, Harry and Kate show that they are determined to be a couple. The manage to persuade their doctors and Harry’s brother and sister-in-law, Morris (Colin Friels) and Louise (Deborra-Lee Furness), to allow them to move in together. By this time, the two of them have become so closely in synch that their numerological obsessions have coincided, and they instantly know whether an address that they are looking at adds up to a good omen or a bad. Harry gets a job, but he has to lie about the two years he has spent in asylums and in outpatient care. When he gets home, Kate has already found out their good news through “Wheel of Fortune”—whose saying when she asked Astral was “Roll out the red carpet.”
Harry wakes up tied to the bed posts. Kate is not there. Harry begins to panic. He calls out to her. She comes back from the kitchen. “This is not funny,” he says, echoing her. But for her it is very serious too. She makes him swear that he will be hers until he dies, which he does, affectionately calling her “you nutter.” But then she still will not untie him until he also drinks a love potion she has prepared—” to make sure.” The reason for these pre-cautions is that she is pregnant. Again they have a pow-wow with the doctors and Morris and Louise. No one else is very happy about the pregnancy, but Harry and Kate are determined to go through with it. And not only to go through with it but to go off their medication, lest the baby be born with it in her system.
At the same time, Kate refuses to see a doctor. Part of her illness is a horror of being cut open and of losing blood. It is one of several psychotic obsessions which begin to resurface in the absence of medication. Other things begin to go wrong. When “Wheel of Fortune” goes on hiatus, it is as if God, or his angel, has withdrawn from their lives, leaving them frightened and alone as they cope with a dangerous pregnancy.
I didn’t like the ending. It came as a reminder that madness is not just a metaphor but also a real thing. And two schizophrenics who in real life decided to stop taking their medication and have a baby, which they planned to raise themselves, would be behaving very irresponsibly indeed. But it is only at the end that this reflection interferes with one’s enjoyment of this splendid little film.