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A woman struggles to break free from the yoke of her father’s authority and become her own person. Matters are complicated when she must care for him after he suffers a stroke. Still, she dreams of moving into a house of her own and helping her friend “Bethan” (Joanna Page) go to Disneyland. In Sara Sugarman’s Very Annie Mary (2001), the titular character charms us with her awkward yet kind-hearted nature. Colorful characters throughout the film make for a quirky, fun, and at times sad story. (RMM: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan
Thirty-three-year-old “Annie Mary Pugh” (Rachel Griffiths) lives with her father “Jack” (Jonathan Pryce) in a small village in Wales. There, Jack runs a bakery during the week and sings opera at chapel on the weekends. At once a self-absorbed tenor and a strict, mean-spirited father, Pryce’s Jack inspires the audience’s contempt. And he isn’t the only person in town gifted with a beautiful singing voice. When Annie Mary was only 15 years old, she won a major singing competition that included a scholarship to study music in Milan. However, her mother’s hospitalization and subsequent death dashed any dream she may have had of pursuing a professional opera career.
Annie Mary’s predicament is an interesting one. Jack treats her like a child – he won’t even allow her to play the piano without him present for fear that she’ll break it. But his mistreatment of her goes deeper and meaner. He verbally degrades her at any chance he gets, calling her pathetic and useless and ordinary. He takes her for granted; he makes her lay down across his feet in bed at night when they are cold, diminishing her personhood as if she were his heated blanket instead of a person with thoughts, desires, and feelings.
A rather odd little bird herself, Annie Mary is clumsy (she often hits her head on doors when making entrances) and lacks tact in conversation and social situations. She makes it easy for the people around her to laugh at her expense. At the same time, these are the very qualities that endear us – the audience – and the other characters to her. As dowdy and awkward as she may be, she means well. Her compassion shines most brightly in her interactions with her friend “Bethan Bevan” (Joanna Page), a chronically ill young teenager who the town has determined to send to Disneyland through fundraising.
Annie Mary has just about saved enough money to put a down payment on a house for sale in town when Jack suffers a debilitating stroke. Left with the daunting, thankless task of caring for her paralyzed father while maintaining the bakery, Annie Mary finds herself more trapped than ever. All she wants is a chance to become her own person and live freely. But to do so, she will have to break free of her father’s hold on her.
I was surprised to find Very Annie Mary (2001) more enjoyable than I had expected. The combination of an original plot and the idiosyncratic characters that populate it make for a funny and refreshing film that also manages to strike a bittersweet chord with its audience towards its end. There is always something to make one laugh or at least smile. Certain scenes leave me smiling even now, like the moment Annie Mary and a group of village women perform in the Cardiff talent competition for a chance at winning the prize money for Bethan’s trip to Disneyland. The three dress as famous operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti; Annie Mary even wears an inflated fat suit underneath the costume that soon sends her flying into the audience. There’s also the hilariously awkward interaction between Annie Marry and “Colin Thomas” (Rhys Miles Thomas), a young man she’s had a crush on for some time. When he refuses her attempt to kiss him, she blurts out, “I’d be good at sex, I would,” and offers to pay him in installments if he agrees to carry out the act.
Sugarman’s story lives in reality but maintains a toe or two in the realm of the absurd and ridiculous. Jack gifts his daughter a cabbage for his birthday. The chapel “Minister” (Kenneth Griffith) orders scratch-and-sniff bibles for the congregation. Annie Mary repackages loaves of sliced white grocery store bread and sells them as the bakery’s. This slackening of the hold on reality keeps us interested, entertained, and at times downright tickled.
Rooted in humor and music, Very Annie Mary resists the urge to fall back on the overused formula of what I call the “dreamer film.” I am referring to those films that chronicle a character or characters’ journey as they pursue a certain dream of theirs. Within this genre, there exists a sub-genre of films dealing specifically with dreams of becoming a singer or other kind of musician. Think movies like A Star is Born (2018) and Burlesque (2010). Our enjoyment in watching comes from seeing these characters find their voices (literally), achieve these dreams, and sing their hearts out with such stories.
Sugarman teases us with the promise of this fulfillment, setting up a moment where Annie Mary will break out into a beautiful song after years of being silenced. And to be sure, such a moment does come, but not in the conventional way exhibited in the aforementioned film examples. Here is where reality shines through, grounding us. As much as we might want Annie Mary to reclaim somehow the scholarship she gave up and become the opera singer she dreamed of being, Sugarman reminds us that it simply isn’t possible.
Furthermore, Annie Mary doesn’t seem to want that career anymore or the fame it might bring. She wants only to gain freedom from her father to live life the way she pleases. Only when a dying Bethan requests that she sing does Annie Mary finally break out into the beautiful song we feel was promised. Her song is a feat in itself, though it may not play out in front of an applauding audience, because it represents personal growth and courage in the face of personal adversity. In overcoming her fear in order to bring Bethan happiness, she reconnects with a joy long-abandoned and learns to claim her life as her own.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (12/20/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Annie Mary smokes a cigarette.
Photo Credits: Paul Chedlow
Annie Mary talks about her dream of buying her own house with Bethan and spending time with some women from the village.