An Angel at My Table (1990) from Tuna
An Angel at My Table (1990) was the first feature from New Zealander
Jane Campion. Based on the three autobiographies of poet and novelist
Janet Frame (To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from
Mirror City), it was intended as a TV mini-series, but simply got too
good not to be seen in theaters. Campion was very resistant to the
idea of a theatrical release after having been booed at Cannes for
an earlier short film, but was finally persuaded to screen it at an
Australian festival where it received probably the best reception in
the history of that event.
The story, like the autobiography, is told in three parts:
The first is childhood. Frame grew up as a shy overweight girl in a large and impoverished farming family. She was an outsider in school, and lived in the shadow of her beautiful, outgoing sister at home. She escaped into writing at an early age. Her first serious trauma occurs when her older sister dies as a teenager, drowned in the public swimming pool.
The second covers her school days, where she has decided to become a teacher. At university, the administration convinces her parents that she should be committed to a mental institution. In her eight years there, she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and given over 200 electric shock treatments. She was on the short list for a lobotomy when her first book of short stories was not only published, but won a prestigious award. This convinced the doctors not to operate, but rather to rehabilitate her.
In part three, she is introduced to and stays with another author. In this nurturing environment, she writes her first novel. When it is accepted for publication, her companion sends her to Europe to give her more exposure. While in Spain, she meets an American teacher on sabbatical and it is with him that she has her first sexual encounter, beginning an affair that lasts through the summer. She is, of course, devastated when he returns to the states. She seeks psychological help, and that is when she discovers that the earlier schizophrenia diagnosis was misguided, and undergoes therapy which helps her work through the problems caused by her hospitalization and treatment. She then returns to New Zealand to write.
It was not a simple project, for many reasons. First, they had to be true to the known facts about a very famous living author. Second, the entire first part of the story required child actors to carry the entire narrative. Third, Campion had to resist her natural inclination toward sophisticated artistry. She known for employing non-linear chronology, and for her radical camera and lighting ideas, but she wisely chose a straightforward, unembellished treatment here. In this case, the factual story was eloquent enough on its own, so Campion kept everything simple.
Performances were excellent throughout. I was especially impressed by the work from the children, and by how convincingly the three actresses who played Frame seemed to be the same person. I was also drawn in by the sense of intimacy created by Campion's creative decision to keep the camera height at the level of Frame at each age. Campion specializes in stories about women struggling to find their own way in society, and Frame's real story was a natural, which she was able to flesh out somewhat with episodes from her own childhood in rural New Zealand. Campion did everything right. This is one of the best biographies I have ever seen, and is about someone interesting enough to warrant a biography.
A total joy.
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