Biography · Criterion Collection · Drama · New Zealand

#301: An Angel At My Table (1990)

Criterion Challenge #301
An Angel At My Table

1990 // New Zealand
Spine #301
Release: Sep 20, 2005

In the latest issue of Sight and Sound magazine, AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE was selected as one of the “100 Overlooked Films Directed by Women”. Claire Denis, one of the most prominent female filmmakers working today, claimed that the film “could only have been made by a woman, this woman… Nobody had made images of girls and landscapes that beautiful before, with such a vibrating intuition for life.”

Watching this three-part-TV-series-turned film for the first time, I was struck by the poignant honesty of the women perspective, partly from the source of Janet Frame‘s autobiography, partly from Jane Campion’s filmmaker artistry in expression. New Zealand writer Janet Frame is an unknown to me before I watched this film. This probably made the viewing experience more unique and fresher. But I’ve to admit it’s no easy task to sit through the two and a half hours screening time in one goal. Jean Campion used a toned down approach in manifesting the writer’s memories as well as her internalization on the screen. Hyped-up moments were drained of over-sentimentality, but not without affection. For example, Janet Frame‘s experience of being diagnosed as Schizophrenic and the subsequent eight years hospitalization with electric shock therapy only constituted of several minutes of screen time, but with the change from a warmer palette to a more bluish one, the harrowing effect is instant and effective.

Told in three parts just like the Janet Frame‘s autobiography, and played by three different actresses (Karen Fergusson as child, Alexia Keogh as adolescent and remarkable Kerry Fox as the adult Janet) with unbelievable resemblance and unity, the film portrayed a sensitive and misunderstood woman with the eyes of the narrator (Janet herself) and the observation of outsiders (Campion, and the audience). Part one “To The Is-land” begins with the montage of baby Janet and her mother (Iris Churn), and continues with her experience as a child in school and the working-class family with several sisters and an epileptic brother. The early inspiration from literature, particularly poems, made Janet a more than observant and imaginative child. She set her goal to be a poet rather than a teacher, though she would experience both later on in her life.

Part two has the same title of the film itself, “An Angel of My Table”, focuses on the Janet’s journey in the bigger society and institutions, like college and hospital. Her shyness maybe parts of her in-born personality, but the depression and the social anxiety maybe more factorial in the psychological sense. The increase in the number of narrations and point-of-view shots from part one to part two and three signifies the growth of Janet’s self-awareness and the internal struggle she had. The last part was named as “The Envoy From Mirror City”, happened after Janet’s works are published and acknowledged with awards which saved her from the lobotomy. She went overseas after winning a scholarship, met new people, and even had an affair. That’s when her “life” really began. And the film came in full circle when she came back to New Zealand after her father’s death.

Laura Jones’s screenplay plays no trick, telling the story in chronological order with such a pleasant simplicity. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography captured the vivacity of New Zealand’s landscape, much earlier than THE LORD OF THE RINGS did. And Don McGlashan’s music is no doubt the highlight of the film, the harmonica theme song played since the opening credit is one of my favorite. At the end, literature is Janet’s salvation, the closing shot with her writing at the back of her sister’s house inside a caravan, is the memorial frame of a rewarding journey she, as well as ours, had, thanks to Jane Campion uncompromising perspective in bring a woman story, once again, to life.

Film Score: 4/5

Supplements: 4.5/5
I still haven’t finished the audio commentary yet, but so far it’s quite enjoyable. The 10-minute documentary bought an insightful look to the impact the film made in 1990, though a longer and more recent one would be better. Together with the six deleted scenes and an audio interview with Janet Frame, the supplements are close to perfect.

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