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A life’s journey captured in motion: female auteur Jane Campion is at her best in this canonical masterpiece from 1990. Based on writer and poet Janet Frame’s autobiographies, An Angel at My Table depicts in three parts Frame’s incredible struggle for existence in a world which was never made for her. (MJJ: 5/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Malin J. Jornvi
Part one of An Angel at My Table takes place in rural New Zealand where a stout and proud young Frame with boisterous red curls is ready to take on the world. With cinematographic expertise, director Campion tracks the curls around the schoolyard and succeeds in showing that fantastical point of view which only exists for a creature not yet weighed down by structures of societal life. The same lens also depicts Frame’s relationship to her four sisters, a sisterhood to which the only brother contributes mostly an interesting contrast. As such it becomes clear that, for once, this is not his story.
The childhood point of view will reoccur at various points throughout the film in the scenes that capture an ephemeral quality of nothing less than life. The life-like aspects are immensely hard to pin down in words but it is as if Campion manages to show the moments which normally take place after the scene has ended; those moments which always occur in real life but which, in streamlined products, always are on the other side of the cut. The most precious example of this is the extended scene depicting the five siblings tucked into the one bed, and to the orders of the eldest attempting at synchronizing their movements: “turn… turn… turn… turn….” This is a scenario which I dare say everyone who has grown up with an older sibling will find delightfully familiar.
An Angel at My Table contains marvelous glimpses of life, but Frame’s life is a life which also contained large amounts of pain. And fittingly perhaps, pain is a particular theme of the second part of the story which deals with Frame’s adolescence. Sufficient to highlight here are the eight years she spends in various psychiatric wards and the treatment she receives in the form of 200 electric shocks due to a diagnosis of Schizophrenia—a mental disease that, it will turn out, she never had. This leads us to part three which, in many ways, is Frame finally coming into her full being. Here, years later and halfway around the globe, the conversation between the adult—and now published—Frame and a London psychiatrist stands out: it might sound banal in writing, but as Campion superbly illustrates, there is an existential importance to the impact an authority can have in telling you that you are okay just the way you are.
An Angel at My Table presents an incredible life journey, but why should we watch it today, 30 years later? Well, for one, this movie shows that true art really is timeless. In addition, Frame’s destiny serves as a good reminder of suffering way worse than many of us can imagine (although an agonizing present) and how it is still possible to come out human on the other side. Furthermore, I think that Campion’s depiction speaks to the fact that many of us search a lifetime and still never find our true way. Janet Frame seems to be one of those who against all odds finds their way while still having time left to live and for that I take An Angel at My Table to be the story of a true heroine.
© Malin J. Jornvi (11/18/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Janet Frame in her natural habitat: writing in solitude.
Middle Photo: Janet Frame with bike in front of one of many spectacular backdrops.
Bottom Photo: Childhood Janet Frame punished in front of the blackboard.
Photo Credits: Fine Line Features
Q: Does An Angel at My Table pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Yes. During the 2h 38 min runtime—spanning over Janet Frame’s lifetime—she gets to have conversations with both men and women across the full range of human topics.