An Angel at My Table
Reviewed in February 1999
Director: Jane Campion. Cast: Kerry Fox, Alexia Keough, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson, Samantha Townsley, Iris Churn. Screenplay: Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame).

Photo © 1990 Australian Broadcasting Corporation,
© 1991 Fine Line Features
Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table, an eccentric biography of the gifted poet and lifelong, Job-like sufferer Janet Frame, should have been a perfect artistic collision: a willful, visionary film artist capturing the life of a willful, visionary writer from her national past. Unfortunately, though An Angel at My Table has its vivid moments, the picture can hardly fail to disappointment viewers who, like me, consider Campion one of the most exciting and powerful filmmakers on the current world scene. Besides, the incredible life of Campion's subject has all the elements for a richer, riper drama than we receive. Unknown in most of the world but still of great literary stature in her native New Zealand (also Campion's homeland), Frame took on a similar sort of status Down Under as Lillian Hellman once had on these shores. That is to say, Frame's memoirs, three of which provide the basis for Campion's movie, were even stranger, darker, and more powerful than her spiky, gripping poetry.

The central theme for much of Frame's life, at least as Campion and screenwriter Laura Jones render it, was loss. Over the course of this three-hour picture, two of Frame's siblings perish in separate drowning incidents, her father dies unexpectedly while driving his car, and Frame herself trumps them all with an eight-year consignment to a mental institution, during which time she is misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and made to endure 200 doses of brutal electroshock therapy. Only by the skin of her grotesquely decayed teeth does Frame escape a lobotomy, and even her eventual success as a writer fails to make up for thirty years of painful timidity, social outcasting, and the total uncomprehension of schools, doctors, and lovers when regarding her.

An Angel at My Table instantly elicits a long line of cinematic comparisons; The Snake Pit and Frances are perhaps the most similar, and it is significant that both pictures are as compromised and flawed as Angel itself. The persistent problem in chronicling the lives of artists (and here the list of failed attempts includes not only Frances but Surviving Picasso and the Hellman-inspired Julia) is that no amount of personal suffering or minute-level biography can explain by themselves the source of the artist's inspiration or talent. A focused understanding of a life does not by default open a window to the comprehension of creativity. (By contrast, a picture like Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, which barely acknowledges that one of its deranged teenaged culprits later became a successful novelist, remarkably elucidates how the behaviors of one's youth can give rise to certain patterns, tones, or idioms in the work of the grown-up artist.)

Janet Frame as author remains rather maddeningly opaque as we watch Campion's film. We occasionally see her type, but we do not know what she has written. We see her in pain and in disillusion, but we can only guess or presume how such an onslaught of negative experience provides the muse for careful and prolific written expression. The worst tendency of An Angel at My Table is its implicit endorsement of suffering as, in whatever small part, an inherently elucidating or productive experience. Though pictures all the way from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Thin Red Line have given harsh, nerve-wracking, and totally un-romantic views of military battles, many film artists still tend to portray personal battles and private wars as maturing processes, necessary evils in the graduation to artistic lucidity or personal wisdom..

It may well be the case that people who suffer—particularly in the ways that Frame does here, silencing her and depriving her of any agency within her own life—have the strongest impulses or incentives to regain a voice that others will hear, even learn from. Campion fumbles, however, by merely documenting the trials in Frame's life, rather than moving far enough into Frame's head that we understand how she processes these events, and later turns them into the dark muses of her beautiful writing. It is, after all, not the suffering itself that enables such art, but the feelings and experiences of the sufferer. By keeping Janet Frame as remote from the audience as she was from her own world, Campion fatally obscures the route that led her heroine away from misery and into artistry.

Then again, the script by Laura Jones, who later adapted The Portrait of a Lady for Campion, sometimes denies us even the basic facts of what happens to Frame as she struggles through school, society, and schizophrenia. For example, we only learn of Frame's desperate suicide attempt or of the extent and extremity of her confinement in the asylum through voice over, as though a three-hour film cannot find the time to do more than telegraph its most crucial events. Isn't the ostensible purpose of this narrative to chronicle one person's misuse by society and, later, the hopefulness suggested by her recovery and self-resurrection as a popular, respected hero of the culture? How are we to achieve such an understanding when Jones trims central moments from Frame's life and Campion holds us at arm's length from those we do hear about?

Predictably for Campion, she partially salvages the misbegotten narrative of her film with bold, frisky visual work; a sly and furtive sense of humor, which this film desperately needs; and terrific performances from the three actresses who inhabit the lead role at different stages in her life. Alexia Keough, representing Frame as an awkward pre-teen, and The Hanging Garden's Kerry Fox, in the grown-up passages, counteract the reticence of the script with impressively physical performances that register both Frame's skittish, fearful relationship to the world and her paradoxical, almost unconscious refusal to be squeezed out of it. Throughout her life, Frame remains trademarked by the towering shock of scarlet curls that grow like a thicket atop her head; one of Campion's most deftly sad/funny touches is to show how much more rigorously Janet's family, teachers, and acquaintances preoccupy themselves with the taming of these unruly locks than with saving the young woman from severe depression and acute emotional neglect.

We are also given plenty of episodes that showcase Campion's flair for visual suggestion. A brief, isolated moment in which Frame and three sisters entertain themselves by rolling over at precise intervals in their shared bed—everyone faces left in their cramped quarters, then everyone rolls uncomfortably to face right, then left again, etc.—makes clear both the easy companionship among these siblings and the low-class background that provides no more elaborate recreation. Amidst a sequence in which Frame takes a doomed stab at teaching elementary school, a glimpse we get of her cowering in a supply closet and a later close-up on a pockmarked piece of chalk imply that Frame (who always had a perverse relationship to food) has been gnawing on chalk to relieve anxiety, or else to satisfy the pangs of her undernourished body. These kinds of moments reveal the magnificence Campion so often achieves with more focused material, and they are infinitely more helpful than Fox's persistent voice-over at conveying the depths of Janet's unhappiness.

The final problems with An Angel at My Table, then, is that it strays too far away from the soul of its heroine, whose mind remains unfathomable, and from the strengths of its director, whose visual precocity lacks any support in narrative, characterization, or even a precise theme. Campion, the same woman who pellucidly revealed in The Piano the thoughts of a mute, willful Scotswoman never gets—and therefore never gives us—any real bead on what happened to Frame, or how she experienced it, or what it all means. A long episode toward the picture's end in which Frame travels across Europe is unwelcome and tedious, because we do not yet have enough sense of Frame's life at home to feel prepared to go anywhere with her. Even the images from the mental hospital, conveyed with the same banal, long, erratic dollies that every other filmmaker has ever used in that milieu, imply that An Angel at My Table's formidable director was running in neutral for this ambitious project.

All of Campion's other pictures suggest that no one else could have fashioned them so strangely and precisely, or generated such power from their offbeat rhythms and wild events. The films are uniquely hers, but An Angel at My Table, a fair enough achievement by most other filmmakers' standards, is a letdown for that very reason: too few are the moments when we sense the unique artist behind the camera. Its scenes tend instead to recall the work of mediocre directors far beneath Campion's level. Thank goodness I watched this picture after Campion had already produced The Piano and Portrait, so I do not have to worry about the implications of this medium-level sophomore slump. I merely have to regret that would could have been Campion's penultimate achievement so sadly lacks the verve she has displayed everywhere else in her oeuvre. An Angel at My Table is an emperor with no clothes. C+

Venice Film Festival (1990): Grand Special Jury Prize
Independent Spirit Awards (1991): Best Foreign Film

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