An Angel at My Table

An Angel at My Table (1990) movie poster

(1990) dir. Jane Campion
viewed: 09/27/09

This is one of those films that many people list among favorites, or remember fondly, one of those films that I’d never seen.  In fact, in the world of New Zealand director Jane Campion, I haven’t even seen her most famous film, The Piano (1993), either.  But with her current film, Bright Star (2009), getting such good reviews and driving me towards actually seeing it in the cinema, now’s as good a time as any to get started on her work.

I don’t know that I knew really anything about this movie, despite having known of it and the fact that a lot of people liked it.  I didn’t, for instance, know that it was based on the life of a real person, notable New Zealand writer Janet Frame, about whom I also knew nothing.  But in actuality, the film is adapted from three of Frame’s memoirs and structured in sequence about them.

At the most condensing and over-simplifying, her story fits within the true stories of women in the 20th Century who suffered at the hands of psychiatry in its raw, harsh, misogynistic worst, misdiagnosing and mistreating people with things so radical as electrical shock treatment and on the far side, lobotomy, which Ms. Frame came nearly a hair’s breadth away from receiving herself if not for winning a national writing award in time to have her brought from the internment.  In all, she spent 8 years in and out of hospitals, and spent many years in therapy thereafter in which her worst issue was the trauma that she’d suffered in being hospitalized and mistreated.

Her childhood has charms and dramas, and her adult life, discovering herself as a writer more significantly post-hospital and in Europe, adds to the strange and amazing tale of her life.  And the story is compelling in and of itself.

As can often be the case in films (either documentary or drama) that are about a true story, amazing in itself, is that the story can compel over the quality of the film, and often people blur the fascination of the story with the quality of the film.  But Campion shows great artistry in the process of the film, not simply with casting the three ages of curly readheds to play Frame, nor in merely telling the tale (which could easily have become either pedantic or melodramatic easily), but she does find that amazing place in which the film becomes larger than the story, the elegance of narrative style adds to the narrative itself, and something much richer emerges.

It’s easy to see why people have been moved and compelled by this film over the years.  It’s easy enough to understand why I might not have gotten around to seeing it, but it’s a bit of a shame, too.  That In the Cut (2003) was the only of Campion’s films that I’d managed to see before now, well, that is just a shame.  I am now quite keen to see The Piano and Bright Star and others of her earlier films like Sweetie (1989).  I often note that no matter how many films any film enthusiast, historian, fanatic, cinephile has seen, there are always going to be some glaring holes.  One less for me now.

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