Next up in World Cinema’s series of movies by and/or about women is Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1990), a film based on the autobiographical work of New Zealand writer Janet Frame. An Angel at My Table is, like many of Campion’s films, a tale of the indomitability of the human spirit. In this case, that spirit resides in Janet Frame (Kerry Fox), a painfully shy, withdrawn young woman, whose oddness caused her to be misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, resulting in her confinement in a mental hospital. The truth is that she wasn’t schizophrenic at all, and would emerge from the experience to go on to write novels, plays and poetry. Her story is a fascinating one, as is the film that houses it.
Campion’s film is broken into three parts—following Frame’s autobiographies—each detailing a period in Frame’s life. Similarly the role of Frame is handled by three actresses: Kerry Fox (adult), Alexia Keogh (adolescent), Karen Ferguson (teenage). This device works extraordinarily well, and it’s virtually impossible not to accept that the three are the same person at different ages. The device is not the only thing that works in a surprising manner, however.
Structurally, the film is fairly straightforward, fairly linear. But Campion thinks nothing of flashing—however briefly—into the realm of Frame’s mind. There’s a marvelous school-room scene, where Frame is transfixed by a hammy teacher reciting a poem in the most theatrical manner imaginable. It’s a reasonably straightforward scene, but for one brief cut it isn’t. The teacher raises her hand to grasp a sword by its handle and Campion shows her hand actually grasping that sword—just as Frame sees it in her imagination. It’s a small moment, but it’s very brevity makes it magical. Much of the film is like that.
Do not get the idea that the film is all about Frame in the madhouse, because it isn’t. In fact, only a relatively small portion of the film actually deals with her confinement, but that confinement hangs over everything. Going into the film, knowing this will happen, colors the early scenes. And I think it should. Here is a film where knowing the basics of the story is actually a plus, because it makes the earlier part of the film more understandable, more emotionally resonant. The scenes involving young Frame stealing money out of her father’s trouser pocket to buy chewing gum to hand out to her classmates carries a greater punch if you realize that she wants desperately to be liked—to fit in—yet hasn’t a clue how to be liked for herself and hasn’t accepted that she’s never really going to fit in.
I should note that this is a rather long movie—160 minutes—and it moves at a leisurely pace. I wouldn’t call it slow, however, because Campion is attempting to immerse the viewer in the world of Janet Frame. In the main, I think she succeeds in doing this, and I can’t think how it might have been done through any approach other than the measured one she takes. But see it for yourself. I do not think you will be sorry you invested the time.