Film Review: Fallen

Angels walk among us in this teen fantasy flick that fails to realize its potential.
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Adapted from the bestselling young-adult novel by Lauren Kate, Fallen has a promisingly melodramatic premise. A reformatory school for teens plays home to a number of angels in adolescent guise who have been banished from Heaven (the titular “fallen”). Some of these students are good angels, with shiny blond hair, who are aligned with the forces of God (see: Gabbe, short for Gabrielle), and some of them are bad angels, covered in heavy Goth makeup, who have solemnly sworn to be up to no good in the name of Lucifer. As we learn from the new, primly British schoolteacher (Joely Richardson), during the war in Heaven which resulted in the banishment of the fallen, one angel not only refused to take sides, he did so in order to pursue his love for a human girl.

Into this steamy hotbed of theology and romance, then, enters pretty, soft-spoken and, we are told, intelligent Lucinda, or “Luce” (Addison Timlin). Luce has a troubled past that includes arson and murky visions of dark, roiling clouds she calls her “shadows.” Luce is inexplicably but inexorably drawn to Daniel (Jeremy Irvine), he of the blond-haired good-guys gang, although Daniel, for all the tortured looks he casts her way, does his darnedest to avoid her, at least at first…

There’s much more to the high-concept story besides, including a curse and something to do with baptism that makes much more sense after you’ve read the Wikipedia synopsis of the novel on which the film is based. As is often the case with stories that take place in fantastical worlds whose rules need first to be established before their stakes can be understood, the graceful incorporation of exposition poses a problem. Fallen tackles the difficulty straightaway with an animated opening sequence that uses Richardson’s voiceover to explain the background information recounted above. This opener is dark and broody and kind of cool in its own grandly self-serious way. But several other important details, including that point about baptism and the related way in which the lovers’ curse is working (or not) in the present action, are left vague.

It is, however, entirely possible the filmmakers are waiting in optimistic expectation of a sequel. Fallen the novel is, after all, the first in a quartet. But if this is the case, it is emblematic of one of two problems that prevent Fallen the movie from realizing the promise of its epically scaled concept. That is, the film is so obviously structured to lead into a sequel it feels more like a pilot episode than a discrete work in its own right. Just as we’re gearing up for a climactic battle, just as all the angst and love triangulations are about to pay off, the film abruptly ends. And it isn’t as if we’ve run out of time: Fallen clocks in at 91 minutes. Instead, it’s as if the entire third act has been lopped off in the hopes that viewers will be so agitated they will chase after it all the way into next year or the year after that, or whenever it is the filmmakers release (if they do) a follow-up. If you’re Harry Potter, Twilight or even “Game of Thrones,” maybe you can get away with such emotional teasing. But without a history of success to justify the move, it feels cynical.

Even more troublesome is the way in which Fallen violates one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting: It features a passive protagonist to whom many more things happen than she herself makes happen. Attractive boys with contrasting hair colors fight over Luce, but why, beyond the fact that she is stunning, is not made clear, either through what she says or what she does. We are told Luce is very smart, but we see her hatch no clever schemes and earn no outstanding marks. Perhaps beauty is all she needs to be the center of this story, but that’s so depressingly retrograde one feels the need to re-watch Beauty and the Beast to counterbalance the effect.

The brightest spark in the film is not Luce with all her fire, but her non-angelic best friend, Pennyweather, or “Penn,” played by Jemima Kirke’s younger sister, Lola. In a film as moody as its tonal antecedent, Twilight, but without Twilight’s great soundtrack, Kirke enlivens every scene she’s in. Her character is not only comically hyper-verbal—allowing Kirke to show off impressive breath control—but refreshingly warm. We hear her say clever things and attempt to problem-solve because she feels moved to do something. If she had been the story’s axis, or if some of her characteristics had been given to Luce, Fallen might have benefited from the elevation.

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