Partially based on the real life story of Janet Frame, an aspiring New Zealander with an enormous passion for writing, An Angel at my Table takes us on a journey where one woman's desire to beat the odds of fate will force her to rediscover her own identity. Avoided by her peers, denied the right to nurture her talent, and wrongfully diagnosed as a schizophrenic, Janet Frame will realize that in real life following your dreams can often be an impossible task.
Directed by acclaimed director Jane Campion (The Piano) An Angel at my Table is structured as a three-part piece following Janet's childhood years, her life as a teenager, and of course her life as a grown-up. This is a very unusual film that relies on a story unlike many I have seen in the past. While it is partially structured as an autobiography An Angel at my Table is also a very poetic film that has a universal message gently masked behind the charming character of Janet Frame. The struggles she undergoes, the pains she suffers, and the price she ultimately pays in order to follow her dreams, are indeed filmed in an impeccable manner conveying the masterful vision of a director knowing how to tell a rich story.
I think that one of the biggest accomplishments of this unique film is the manner in which the brittle world of Janet Frame is recreated. Take for example the scene where Janet first realizes that she is different from everybody else because she has a special gift allowing her to tell beautiful stories by using simple words. What she could easily put on paper appears to be a tremendous challenge for everyone else around her. Now take a look at the scene where Janet senses that being loved by another human being is a feeling she has never experienced in her life. Her body tells her that it must be something special yet her mind insists that she is not ready to be loved. Going from one extreme to another in a manner of seconds and capturing the tremendous emotional conflict raging in Janet's soul is a stunning scene to behold which Jane Campion has filmed with an unprecedented finesse. Indeed few are the films that manage to accomplish such perfection and looking at An Angel at my Table one gets the feeling that these types of special films do not come around that often.
When I watch a new film I often tend to compare what I see on the screen with other films that are either similar in narrative or rely on a somewhat similar cinematography technique. Such approach often helps me understand what the director was aiming for and whether or not certain aspects of the film that I am about to see might have been better addressed by another filmmaker. I know it may sound a bit awkward to some of you but this is not a process that I can control, at least not anymore as nowadays it all happens automatically, as soon as I sit in front of the big white screen my mind unleashes a wave of ridiculous comparisons that quite often can prove rather annoying. The reason I mention all of this to you is because with Jane Campion's An Angel at my Table the comparison machine my mind controls remained strangely quiet. From the beginning to the end I was simply immersed in the story of Janet Frame where absolutely nothing proved to be an either well-known cliché I have seen in another film or a predictable "twist" that was meant to bring that extra bit of flavor. It was a pure cinematic experience comparable to reading a superbly put-together classic novel.
I find it very strange that such a renowned director as Jane Campion is unceremoniously neglected in the United States regardless of the fact that her Oscar winning picture The Piano in my humble opinion is one of the most beautiful films to be directed in the last twenty years. Believe it or not Jane Campion and her work are much better regarded in non-English speaking countries and I find this to be rather awkward. In France thanks to the Cannes Film Festival she has gained the admiration of thousands of film lovers and her work has received the lavish treatment this unique New Zealander rightfully deserves. Hopefully with this splendid presentation of An Angel at my Table by the always reliable Criterion company the American audiences will soon see the release of Sweetie (1989) and why not a deserving release of her best The Piano (1993).
How Does the DVD Look?
For those interested in quality DVD products, both in terms of film selection and technical presentation, it is not a secret that Criterion are among the best to currently operate on the DVD market. Their presentation of An Angel at my Table is not an exception from the standard high quality products the company usually delivers. The film is very well presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 with the mandatory anamorphic enhancement. The image offers deep and well saturated colors, great contrast, and edge enhancement does not appear to be an issue. In addition I think that the picture quality offers just about the right amount of film grain which allows the film to look as natural as possible. With this said I am going to comment on a specific issue which I think many might disregard though some might be willing to consider:
As it has been commented already there appears to be some color discrepancy between the existing R2 French boxset, the old R2 Artificial Eye release, and this new R1 Criterion version. The Criterion disc offers rather subdued color palette with more natural tone colors whereas both the French and the UK versions offer much more vibrant color scheme (they do rely on the same master). The discrepancy is quite obvious and though the booklet provided with this release indicates that Jane Campion has approved the new Criterion transfer I am certainly doubtful that this is the intended look of the film. Why? This is the second time Criterion have visibly manipulated the color scheme of a particular film that brings a rather different overall feeling (the other striking example of color adjustment is the R1 Criterion release of Melville's Le Cercle Rouge) and I wonder if this is indeed intentional on their part. With this said now that I own two different versions of this film I think that the bright color scheme of the Artificial Eye R2 disc enhances Janet's red/orange hair in a manner I think better fits the mood of the film. So take it with a grain of salt and decide which one you prefer.
How Does the Disc Sound?
This is another interesting aspect of the Criterion presentation. While the R2 versions offer the original mono track of the film the Criterion version has been upgraded to a 5.1 track. Certainly a good presentation but for the purists out there it is good to know that different options are available.
When it comes to extras Criterion certainly deliver and this disc while not as lavishly produced as their splendid double sets has more than enough to keep you interested after you finish watching the film.
A 40-page booklet with linear notes and extracts from the film-
The making of An Angel at my Table-
Six deleted scenes-
My Say: An Interview with Janet Frame-
An audio commentary with Jane Campion, Kerry Fox, Stuart Dryburgh-
An enormously poetic film that in many ways tells a story like a great book does. Genuine, sophisticated, and with so much to offer this is a great addition to the excellent Criterion collection. A remarkable film!! Highly recommended.