After bringing us two foreign-language films in his first set, Alessandro returned to bring us an English-language film – An Angel At My Table. This was Jane Campion’s second full-length feature (and by full-length, I mean over two and a half hours) and the one that immediately preceded her best-known film, The Piano. Due to the length of the film I’ll guess we didn’t have a short, but we might have. We’ll never know, most likely.
An Angel At My Table is an adaptation of New Zealand author Janet Frame’s three autobiographies: To The Is-Land, An Angel At My Table, and The Envoy From Mirror City.
To The Is-Land
Janet Frame grew up a pudgy red-headed child (going by the name of Jean) whose carrottop would have made Little Orphan Annie jealous. She lived in poverty with a handful of siblings on the South Island, and when from an early age she showed an aptitude for poetry, her teachers and family encouraged her to write.
Her family life was somewhat less than ideal – her parents fought, sometimes viciously, her brother was an epileptic, and her oldest sister died of drowning.
Despite her adolescent intent to become a poet, she instead went to trade school to become a teacher, performing a ritual, if somewhat unexplained barrel-burning of her poems.
An Angel At My Table
Frame moved away from home and went to live with an aunt and consumptive uncle as she became more and more withdrawn. She and a younger sister Isabel were kicked out of the aunt and uncle’s for the heinous sin of sneaking chocolates. Eventually, her anxiety drove her to give up her teacher’s trade school and try to take up her first love of writing.
But after a suicide attempt (by swallowing aspirin) she was sent to the psychiatric ward, and subsequently misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Following Isabel’s drowning death (yes, another) she had trouble coping and was institutionalized in a lunatic asylum. On the pretense of a medical tending to her rotting teeth, she was introduced to the wonders of electroconvulsive therapy, which she was to be subjected to 200 times over the next 8 years.
Despite the fact that she manifestly did not belong in the asylum, her parents signed her up for a frontal lobotomy (“only the best for our little baby!”) which was narrowly averted when her first collection of short stories was not only published, but won the Hubert Church Memorial Award, one of New Zealand’s most prestigious literary prizes. Thus, she was finally released from the asylum and entered into her literary career, working first under New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson and after the publication of her first novel she left the land of the Kiwis for Europe, supported by a literary grant.
The Envoy From Mirror City
Frame first traveled to London (a brief tidbit in the movie but apparently quite extended in real life) and followed this up by relocating to Ibiza where she breaks out of her shell a bit, having an affair with an American poet. However, he was only scheduled to stay for a summer and left her, at which point she despondently returned to London, where she miscarried his child and later voluntarily re-admitted herself to an institution. There she learned for the first time that her original schizophrenia diagnosis was in error. Turns out being shy and antisocial isn’t actually schizophrenia! (Thank goodness!) At this point her literary career took an upswing, but her father’s sudden death brought her back to New Zealand to reunite with her brother and remaining sister.
The real problem with this film is that it’s got very little narrative structure. It follows a troubled life, it has some moving scenes (a very few, to be honest), some very good acting from Kerry Fox and some nice literary snippets thrown in, but it never really gets anywhere and sometimes feels like it’s skipping a significant bit of the action. It turns out that the feature film was adapted from a miniseries – I don’t know how long, but I’ll bet that 50% or more of the miniseries was excised to make it a feature-length film. That, I suspect, is a big part of the problem.