Once again, the Criterion Collection can be counted on to bring us wonderful surprises. Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table is an absorbing feature adapted from the autobiographies of Janet Frame, a noted New Zealand author who wished to dispel rumors that she was a madwoman committed to an asylum. Director Campion pulls back from her more florid style of fiction filmmaking (The Piano) to render a remarkable life without poetic embellishments. Thanks to no-nonsense direction and wonderful casting, An Angel at My Table is the filmic equivalent of a book too good to put down.
We know we're in special territory from the first few images. The filmic equivalent of "I am born" shows a happy baby being picked up by a loving mother. The baby's bare feet are helped to pace through the grass. Then the voiceover begins as we see a young Janet Frame walking toward us on a road. With a mountain of frizzy red hair, the pudgy little girl is a perfect candidate for social failure. Campion moves us rapidly through Janet's formative experiences. Desperate for friends, she steals money to treat her classmates to gum but succeeds only in being branded a thief. Her personal catastrophe widens when, along with other poor, unloved and unwashed children, she's weeded from the class almost as an aesthetic gesture and put in a 'retarded' group. Scorned and humiliated, Janet builds a habitable world for herself by retreating into reading and fantasy. Even her large family doesn't know how to interpret her avoidance of social contact. She stays a loner, private and shy beyond words.
Campion and screenwriter Laura Jones don't smooth the edges of the tale; this is no My Brilliant Career in which we're told the heroine is plain yet are confronted with the beautiful Judy Davis. Alexia Keogh and Karen Fergusson play Janet Frame as a small child and as a young teen, blending brilliantly with the adult Kerry Fox to give the impression of the same person growing up. Janet's desultory narration describes a hopelessly unkempt and smelly outcast; she is forever teased and shunned by groups of other girls leading normal social lives. With blotchy skin and rotting teeth, Janet thinks of herself as a slug to be kept hidden from view.
All the more wonderful then that her gifts were recognized. The 'Angels' at Janet's table appear to be a number of people who gave her encouragement when she needed it most. A loan of a book of fairy tales is like a ticket to another world; even in her 'special' classes, her poetic talents are rewarded with a prized medal and an adult library card. These signs of approval sustain her through painful years of school, avoiding other students while admiring male teachers from afar.
Just when she's getting the opportunity to try to teach children, Janet cracks up in the classroom, unable to face the scrutiny of superiors. Her secret inner life, which is only a social defense, is unfortunately misdiagnosed as schizophrenia. Convinced that there must be something wrong, Janet is far too quick to volunteer to be 'sent to a place to rest.'
An Angel at My Table could easily be a horror story but Campion sketches Frame's eight years in an asylum with short impressions. Instead of finding rest, Janet lives in mortal fear of frequent electroshock treatments apparently dispensed to give psychiatric staffers the illusion of doing something proactive. Her rescue is almost too melodramatic to be believed. Lobotomizing a literary prizewinner strikes even the asylum doctors as inappropriate. The reprieve -- and some loving help from a sister -- is all Janet needs to give life another shot.
JJanet's eventual trip to Europe is a combination of delights and disasters, a poet's dream-come-true interrupted by the traumas of lost luggage and hostile rooming houses. A retreat in Spain is less idealized than the Mediterranean experiences in Merchant-Ivory films, as we see Janet floundering on her own before being accepted by local women who prefer her to the Americans that come for sexual adventures. The only stumbling point is Campion's use of generic gypsy flamenco music to cover almost the entire Spanish episode.
Janet has her first sexual adventure in Spain, but more importantly finds a release from her fears regarding her mental health. A no-nonsense English psychiatrist offhandedly tells her she's not schizophrenic, and that if she doesn't want to mix in with people, she has his approval not to. These few short words from a stranger are like the lifting of a death sentence. At age 33, Janet finally becomes her own person.
The movie is assembled from a three-part New Zealand Television miniseries directed and assembled with great care. Jane Campion's handling is remarkable in that neither Janet nor the film blames anyone else for her problems. The tale becomes a series of little miracles for our unlikely heroine as she's rescued time and again by her 'impractical' literary gifts. Instead of condemning outmoded medical practices and social cruelties, An Angel at My Table demonstrates why progressive ideas of teaching and mental care are indeed more enlightened.
Criterion's disc of An Angel at My Table is a sparkling enhanced transfer bringing out the wonderfully rich colors of Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography, which according to his commentary had to tone down the naturally bright greens of New Zealand. The transfer information mentions a blow-up film element, indicating that the film may have been shot on 16mm. If that's the case, the visual achievement is twice as impressive. The original audio has also been remixed in 5.1.
The extras widen the viewing experience and will doubtless turn many in the direction of the original Janet Frame books. Campion, cameraman Dryburgh and actress Kerry Fox turn in a very good commentary. We learn that one of the most expensive items in the budget were the convincing red wigs worn by the three actresses playing Janet, the blast of red hair that makes little Alexia Keogh look like Little Orphan Annie's unloved twin sister. A new featurette covers the making of the film and its prize-winning trip to the Venice Film festival. A number of deleted scenes are short but pointed, especially a timeless clip in which Janet and other unfortunates are ignored during a game of jump rope.
The real Janet Frame is heard in an audio interview from 1983 to discuss the autobiography and counter rumors of her insanity. We're also given a trailer and a hefty stills gallery, where we can see Kerry Fox in her natural long dark hair and more attractive makeup. Criterion producer Kim Hendrickson assembles a fat booklet with a thoughtful essay by Amy Taubin and three substantial excerpts from author Frame's three part autobiography.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
An Angel at my Table rates: