With the deaths of family members at its core—not to mention its Maine setting and Nova Scotia locations—A Rumor of Angels would appear to be another grief-stricken, saltwater-soaked tale along the lines of In the Bedroom or The Shipping News. But the seaside town it takes place in bears substantial traces of the paranormal: A bonfire on the beach flickers ominously, and the air grows heavy with the murmur of otherworldly voices. Often these spectral effects are grounded by Vanessa Redgrave’s flinty performance as local eccentric Maddy Bennett. Looking like the Old Woman of the Sea with her windswept white hair and fisherman’s boots, Maddy leads a solitary life in her weathered hilltop house until 12-year-old James (Trevor Morgan) crashes through her fence. Despite their awkward first meeting, she takes the boy under her wing and gives him lessons in hard work and classical music appreciation. In turn, James welcomes this refuge from his emotionally distant father (Ray Liotta), brittle stepmother (Catherine McCormack), and terminally wasted pothead of an uncle (Ron Livingston). He’s also still traumatized by the death of his mother, at times reliving it in terrifyingly sunlit flashbacks. Then Maddy reveals her own secret: Her son, who died in the Vietnam War, continued to communicate with her after his death through messages in Morse code.
Instead of deliberating the question of whether loved ones can speak to us from beyond the grave, the film suggests that listening to the living is far more important. While this sentiment is comforting and even therapeutic, the pat reconciliations among family members start to pile up like so much driftwood along the beach. Then the film’s darker moments become smoothed over by an overwhelming need to tender inspirational tidings, especially in the last few cloying moments.