An Angel at My Table Review
An Angel at My Table is based on Janet Frame’s autobiography, covering her life from her birth in 1924 in Dunedin, on the South Island of New Zealand, to 1963. For Janet, known as Jean to her family, tragedy struck early, with the accidental drowning of her older sister Myrtle. As an adult, working as a teacher, Janet suffers a nervous breakdown, is misdiagnosed a schizophrenic and spends eight years in a mental hospital. By that time she has begun to write, and it’s only her winning a literary award that saves her from a leucotomy. In the final episode, Janet leaves New Zealand and travels and finds love in England and Ibiza, before returning home following her father’s death.
Janet Paterson Frame became one of New Zealand’s leading writers, a novelist, poet and short-story writer. While a keen filmgoer, her only previous connection with the cinema was Vincent Ward’s 52-minute adaptation of her novel A State of Siege, made in 1978 at film school, and Ward’s dramatic feature debut if you count a film of that length as a feature. In her late fifties and early sixties, Frame published her autobiography in three volumes: To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984) and The Envoy from Mirror City (1985). Jane Campion’s film version, subtitled “A Trilogy” is divided into three equal parts named after the three books it is based on, inevitably streamlined in Laura Jones’s adaptation to fit into three episodes of around 53 minutes each. The film was made for New Zealand television, but during production the intention was to release it as a slightly-shortened two-and-a-half-hour cinema feature. Given that Campion is now working mainly in television, most recently with the two Top of the Lake miniseries, it’s worth mentioning that she began on the small screen (short films apart): her first feature was the TV movie 2 Friends, made for ABC in Australia but shown in film festivals overseas. Sweetie, premiering at Cannes in 1989, was her second feature and An Angel at My Table her third.
You can tell from the opening scenes that An Angel at My Table is no conventional biopic. It begins with brief, disconnected scenes, like fragmentary early memories. External events only appear when they impinge on Janet’s consciousness: World War Two, for example, only becomes a reality when she sees her father in a soldier’s uniform. Jane Campion’s films deal with emotion that’s strange, singular and disruptive – those who display it are misunderstood, and sometimes, as in Sweetie and this film, even regarded as mad. Kerry Fox plays the adult Janet as someone deeply uncomfortable in her own skin, painfully shy and nervous. Although she doesn’t appear until the end of Part One, Fox dominates the film. In the first part, Alexia Keogh plays Janet as a child, Karen Fergusson as a teenager. They’re well chosen to match Fox and indeed Frame: the unruly red curly hair, the stocky build (Fox put on weight for the role). The remainder of the cast are all well chosen and give convincing performances, but necessarily their screen time is brief.
An Angel at My Table was shot in 16mm and, though that was no doubt due to the circumstances of its production and its budget, it seems the right choice. The film, however vibrant it may look, lacks the slickness of 35mm and has a slightly grainy look that fits the subject matter. Campion and her director of photography Stuart Dryburgh vary the colour schemes to match the emotional hue of the scene: bright colours predominate during Janet’s childhood in the countryside; later scenes in the city are lit much colder and flatter. At Janet’s worst moments, such as her sister’s drowning and the whole sequence in the mental hospital, Campion and Dryburgh desaturate the colour almost entirely.
There’s a lot that’s admirable about this film, though its character-led narrative won’t be to all tastes. Two and a half hours is almost too much to take in in one sitting, and the final part does flag in places: perhaps this film might be best appreciated as it was originally intended, in three parts. But it’s a key work from a major filmmaker.
Janet Frame died in 2004 at the age of seventy-nine.
Umbrella’s Blu-ray of An Angel at My Table is encoded for Region B only. It carries the advisory Australian M rating – in the UK it’s a 15 and a R in the US, so not really for children.
As mentioned above, An Angel at My Table was shot in 16mm and would have been shown in 4:3 on television. This Blu-ray however transfers the film in a ratio of 1.78:1, which is close to what it would have been shown in on its cinema release – possibly 1.66:1, 1.75:1 or 1.85:1. In the commentary, Stuart Dryburgh says that the film was composed for 1.33:1 in those days before widescreen television, and the picture was often reframed when it was blown up to 35mm for cinemas, rather than simply cropped at the top and bottom. This does make some of the compositions a little tight in places. The transfer itself is fine, with grain visible and present and filmlike, faithful to the unslick look of the film as mentioned above.
The soundtrack is DTS-HD MA 5.1, which is derived from the Dolby Stereo track the film had in cinemas. It’s not the most elaborate of mixes, mainly using the surrounds for Don McGlashan’s score and some directional effects. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available.
The commentary features Jane Campion, Stuart Dryburgh and Kerry Fox, recorded separately but edited together. Just over two and a half hours is a lot to fill, so splitting the commentary this way does help, and there are few dead spots. Dryburgh’s contributions are mostly technical, which may be a little dry for some, but invaluable for anyone with an interest in cinematography.
Next up is a making-of featurette (10:23), featuring Campion working with editor Veronika Haussler (later billed as Veronika Jenet), who would work with her again on The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady and Holy Smoke. Campion’s comments here do overlap a little with those in the commentary: a fan of Frame’s work since reading her novel Owls Do Cry and was first in the queue at the bookshop when the autobiographies were published.
Janet Frame herself makes an appearance next, in audio only (23:22), interviewed for New Zealand radio by Elizabeth Alley in 1983, soon after the publication of To the Is-Land and while she was working on An Angel at My Table. It’s a talk which ranges over Frame’s career up to that point, and her desire to have her say about her life so far, hence the books which seven years after this interview became this film.
It doesn’t say so on the menu, but the deleted scenes are the ones which were removed from the television miniseries version for the cinema release. Running 3:16, they are: from Part One, “Outside Toilet”, “Skipping”, “The Princess and the Frog”; from Part Two, “On the Train”; from Part Three, “Collision in London”, “Janet Meets a Woman in the Mountains”. Finally, on the disc is the US theatrical trailer (1:43).