A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990)

Kerry Fox in An Angel at My Table
Janet Frame: Kerry Fox
Janet as a child: Karen Fergusson
Janet as a teenager: Alexia Keogh
Mother: Iris Churn
Father: Kevin J. Wilson
Myrtle: Melina Bernecker
Isabel: Glynis Angell
Leslie: Natasha Gray
Miss Botting: Brenda Kendall
Frank Sargeson: Martyn Sanderson

Director: Jane Campion
Screenplay: Laura Jones
Based on books by Janet Frame
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production design: Grant Major
Costume design: Glenys Jackson
Music: Don McGlashan

Three years before The Piano (1993) earned her critical acclaim and an Oscar for screenwriting as well as a nomination for directing, Campion made this film, originally as a TV miniseries. It's an account of the life of New Zealand author Janet Frame, told in three segments. Writers' biopics are difficult to bring off, in large part because writers' lives are usually less interesting than the things they write. Their chief function is typically to give us insight into the personal experiences that shaped their art, which in Frame's case included growing up in a working-class family in rural New Zealand, having a mental breakdown while she was at teachers' college, and being misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and institutionalized for eight years at an antiquated mental asylum where she was treated with electroshock therapy. But during her stay at the hospital she wrote a series of short stories that were collected and published, receiving acclaim that eventually resulted in her release. Campion's film is based on three volumes of autobiography by Frame. I have to admit that I've not read any of Frame's books or stories, so I'm not qualified to judge whether the film adds substance to either the autobiography or the fiction, but the screenplay by Laura Jones and the performance by Kerry Fox as the adult Janet Frame (she is played by Alexia Keogh as a teenager and Karen Fergusson as a child) are compelling enough in themselves. I also admit that I had trouble understanding the New Zealand accents, so I lost out on some of the dialogue.

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