One of the finest dramatic works ever produced for the stage is adapted into a legendary television movie. Essential, historic, disturbing — this one will raise the hair on the back of your neck.
An angel comes crashing through the ceiling spraying plaster dust everywhere and startling the man in the bed. Is this a vision or a medication-induced hallucination? Who knows — all we know is that the appearances of the angel (played by Emma Thompson with a mystified look on her face) are not the only miraculous moments in this superb, soon-to-be-considered classic film. This stunning tour-de-force from HBO films is not only a political and historical drama set in the age of AIDS, but also a powerful love story between two men. Louis (Shenkman) and Prior Walter (Kirk) are totally in love with each other in this tragedy set in at the height of AIDS hysteria in 1984. To refresh your memories, President Reagan refused to utter the words AIDS and thousands were dying of a stigmatized disease. Also in this mix in this utterly essential film are the evil Roy Cohn (Pacino) his vision Ethel Rosenberg (Streep), an old rabbi also played by Streep, gay loves, a shunned wife, a Mormon mother and some fierce politics.
Adapting stage plays for television seems like a daunting task. Taking what seems like high drama on the stage and reducing it to home television size is risky. But Tony Kusher, the playwright/adapter and Mike Nichols, the director, have done what seems impossible, they’ve bettered the original. How they transformed this melange of love, AIDS, Roy Cohn and angels into a transforming creation is a miracle indeed. It is our opinion that Angels in America will stand as a pinnacle of 20th century drama and this production as the best!
Angels is set in the eighties in NYC and focuses on the AIDS stricken Prior Walter who is abandoned by his over Louis. Also in this sprawling film where several actors play several roles are the McCarthy-era closet case Roy Cohn, the accused Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg, Louis’s new lover Joe Pitt (Wilson), his mother Hanna (Streep, who also plays an elderly Rabbi), his wife Harper (Parker) and a enormous rather mystified angel played by Emma Thompson who also plays a Brooklyn accented nurse and a homeless woman. Perhaps the supporting player who most stands out is Jeffrey Wright who stars not only as a very gay nurse, but also as a guide in Harper’s fantasies. Yes, the film is filled with fantasies — so many we couldn’t share them all here — in fact, we wouldn’t dare.
Combining masterly acting skills, we assume this whole production will win many Emmy awards, brilliant writing and Mike Nichols (The Graduate as director has paid off big-time for HBO. At the end of the 2nd climax there is a surreal, writhing energy on screen and Ethel Rosenberg says “History is about to crack wide open, millennium approaches.” We couldn’t agree more.