An Angel At My Table

1990 Sydney, Wellington, Venice, New York
1991 Berlin
2023 Sydney

An Angel at My Table is a much more conventional work than either Sweetie or the books on which it is based. For a start, it has a heroine. The portrait of a sweet-natured, imaginative, painfully embarrassed girl and young woman who became a great writer is a sympathetic and admiring one. There are passages of fierce identification with Frame’s pain – her last sight of her sister Myrtle, her subjection to shock treatment, for example – that have a simpler, more direct emotional impact than anything Campion has done before. Like all of her work and much of Frame’s, An Angel at My Table is characterised by arresting perceptions of the absurd and the beautiful in the ordinary. Beautifully shot, it also displays a keen, often eerily accurate eye for the New Zealand past. Laura Jones’ adaptation has the modesty and good sense not to delve into the meanings behind those intriguing titles: To the Is-Land, Angel at My Table and Envoy from Mirror City. The dramatic focus is on Frame’s life, her family and her relationship to a society that long deemed her crazy and locked her away for eight years. We’re left in no doubt that writing saved Janet Frame’s life, but for her remarkable perceptions about turning life into writing, it’s necessary to return to the books. In doing so, it will be impossible to put aside the pictures conjured up in Jane Campion’s lovely homage.
-Bill Gosden, Wellington Film Festival, 1990.

It is difficult to envisage Jane Campion’s complex and haunting film about New Zealand writer Janet Frame originating as a three-part TV mini-series in the Lives of Great Writers vein. The preoccupations of the traditional bio-pic (linear chronology, focus on key events, failed romance and the exigencies and eccentricities of ‘genius’) here give way to an elegiac evocation of Frame’s acclaimed autobiographical trilogy which is both cinematically stunning and tenderly intimate in its depiction of a woman constantly shadowed by death who wrote herself into life. Campion’s characteristic play with the familiar and the strange, enhanced by Laura (High Tide) Jones’ quirky dialogue, perfectly realises the sense of dislocation, estranged sexuality and blocked desire at the heart of Frame’s writing, tracing its roots to a New Zealand both narrowly repressive and desolately, breathtakingly beautiful. This is close to home for Campion, too, and the empathy shines through. But it also has deeper resonance as the drama of a fragile femininity struggling for survival.

In the absence of Sally Bongers’ distinctive photography, An Angel at My Table appears stylistically very different from Campion’s breakthrough film, Sweetie, harking back to shorts like Passionless Moments. But its episodic narrative, unfolding in tiny memory-fragments punctuated by sudden fades to black, echoes a strategy evident in all Campion’s work: a stress on the aleatory, and on the power of what takes place ‘off-screen’ to disrupt expectations. With Campion, what you see is not what you get; the spectator is constantly teased, deprived of the illusory knowledge provided by conventional narratives. Challenged to relinquish this comforting sense of mastery, the audience is in a similar position to Campion’s alienated protagonists, at the mercy of events, haunted by premonitions of disaster and cast adrift in a sea of uncertainties. This, combined with touching performances from the three actresses playing Janet Frame, is the key to the film’s success, enabling the director, without the usual narrative hooks and eyes, to achieve maximum identification with her central character.

Some scenes even appear to comment on this process. After a happy camping holiday, the Frame family puzzles over a photograph in which the eldest daughter Myrtle appears on the edge of the group as a ghostly, transparent figure. The following scenes concern Myrtle’s death by drowning, brutally announced by a doctor who bursts in on Janet and her mother without ceremony; as the family grieves, Mum shows some friends a portrait of Myrtle specially reconstituted by the photographer, who has given her a new arm and leg. The sequence encapsulates the mixture of the uncanny, the absurd and the random that governs Janet’s life.

For she is essentially someone to whom things happen rather than the agent of her own destiny. This makes her a post-modern, post-feminist heroine, someone whose life speaks volumes about the anxieties generated by the disintegration of value and belief systems in the wake of the Second World War and the nuclear age, and about the violence visited on human beings in the name of Truth. But the film is no moralistic socio-humanist tract. The young Janet’s brushes with an authoritarian education system, her sense of physical and cultural disadvantage, her encounter with a punitive psychiatric medical establishment all the more horrific for being well-meaning, are milestones in the development of a psyche at once frail and remarkably resilient; vulnerable, yet powerful in its ability to overcome life’s cruelties through poetry.

Nor is this a ‘madness is necessary to genius’ story. Campion treats with suitable irony the remarks of Janet’s lecturer John Forrest, who associates her work with that of other ‘schizophrenics’ such as Van Gogh, before being instrumental in her committal to a mental hospital where she endures over two hundred ECT treatments and is threatened with leucotomy. (The ultimate irony, of course, is that Janet discovers years later that the diagnosis of schizophrenia was incorrect.) Rather than from her ‘madness’, Janet’s work derives from her over-anxious perception of the world as hostile and unstable, herself as an alien presence in it, and her longing for the comfort and release which seems unattainable. Her anomie is shared by many of Campion’s young women characters: a poignant song sung by the Frame sisters as they sit on a cliff gazing out to sea echoes the Feel the Cold number that closes A Girl’s Own Story. Janet Frame may be different, but she is certainly not unique.

The symptoms of her estrangement make patterns through the film, forming irregular lateral chains across its narrative fissures. The experience of being labelled a thief in primary school recurs fleetingly and obliquely in a sentence from Owls Do Cry; the odd ‘Spanish’ girl from her childhood prefigures her later adventures in Ibiza; and ritual burning ceremonies mark painful periods of transition. But the most telling recurring image is of footwear. Myrtle’s high heels represent the glamour and sexuality from which Janet is excluded and, on the verge of mental breakdown and suicide, she removes her own pumps as she runs from the teaching college she hates. The penultimate sequence, in which Janet returns home after her father’s death, shows her trying on his boots, adopting for a few seconds his confident and flamboyant stance, the persona she always envied. This parodic moment powerfully condenses Campion’s acute perception of the motivating force behind Janet Frame’s life and work: an overwhelming desire to be in someone else’s shoes.
– Pam Cook, Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1990.

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