A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990)

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 being institutionalized at an antiquated mental asylum for eight years 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 that Frame wrote. 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 track sometimes in the dialogue.