If Miramax learned one thing from "The English Patient," it was that romance and war make compelling cinematic bedfellows (a lesson that seemed to have become lost since the days of "Gone With the Wind," "Doctor Zhivago" and "The Sound of Music"). Unfortunately for the brothers Weinstein, the formula doesn't work to that extent in "Talk of Angels." Lovingly adapted by Ann Guedes and Frank McGuinness from Kate O'Brien's novel "Mary Lavelle" and ably directed by veteran West End stage director Nick Hamm, "Talk of Angels" is an undeniably beautiful and often seductive tale of colliding cultural sensibilities and ferocious passions, all set to the backdrop of an impending Spanish Civil War. Sadly, the passions depicted on-screen are fairly tepid ones, playing more like a dime novel than the meaningful epic the filmmakers intended.
Polly Walker ("For Roseanna") stars as Mary, an Irish governess transplanted to the aristocratic Spanish household of Dr. Areavaga (Franco Nero). She initially goes about doing what all good movie governesses do, namely winning the affection of the children while offending most everyone else. At first, Mary manages to steer clear of the Areavagas' incendiary politics, bookended by the doctor's socialist sympathies on the one hand and his wife's fascistic leanings on the other. With the arrival of eldest son Francisco ("The Crow: City of Angels'" Vincent Perez), a fervently anti-Franco member of the national assembly, Mary finds herself increasingly unable to keep an acceptable emotional distance from the family and, by extension, from Spain.
The notion of a reserved English-speaking woman liberated by Latin passions is nothing new to the movies, the best example being David Lean's "Summertime." In this instance, though, the Walker/Perez pairing doesn't quite click. At times, the filmmakers almost seem to expect the sheer beauty of the two actors to substitute for chemistry. What ultimately salvages the film from mediocrity is nothing less than the craft of its execution, a credit to first-time helmer Hamm and an excellent supporting cast that includes Frances McDormand ("Fargo") as one of Mary's fellow Irish governesses. Had the material been more worthy of the treatment, Miramax might yet have seen lightning strike twice. Starring Polly Walker, Frances McDormand, Vincent Perez and Franco Nero. Directed by Nick Hamm. Written by Ann Guedes & Frank McGuinness. Produced by Patrick Cassavetti. A Miramax release. Romance. Rated PG for some politically motivated violence. Running time: 97 min. Screened at the American Film Market