An Angel At My Table Movie Review

In the right director's hands, the life of the guy who sold you your last toaster could be both a box office hit and an Academy Award nominee. This shouldn't be a revelation to anyone whose followed film in the last couple decades, but it's still an interesting idea. If you slap "based on a true story" on anything, you will have successfully baited the hook. Janet Frame might not be the most interesting character in the world, but Jane Campion has the good sense and poet's eye to know a good story when she sees it.

An Angel at My Table was originally planned as a miniseries but was given the go-ahead to be released in theaters, still split into three separate sections. The film lets us into the world of Janet Frame, the famed poet and novelist from New Zealand who suffered eight years in a mental hospital and went through roughly 200 rounds of electro-shock therapy. Thankfully, her collection of short stories, The Lagoon, was published and that sped her exit from the hospital and saved her from a lobotomy. Soon after, Frame became quite a big deal and traveled through Europe, ultimately ending up back in New Zealand.

We've all met at least one Janet Frame in our life. Remember that mousy girl who said really awkward things, acted way too nice, and was just uncomfortable to be around in general? That's Janet Frame. Campion's film, like many biopics, hinges on a great performance to fill Frame with her quirks but also see why those quirks are there. Luckily, Kerry Fox, who plays the adult Frame, takes all the right risks and brings a startling gravity and nuance to the woman. Fox brings out all the loneliness and social awkwardness of Frame and still makes her someone we want to watch. The problem is that, like most bio-pics, the performance almost outweighs the film. We aren't given enough time with any other character enough to understand her emotional attachments. The only one that sticks out is her older sister, Myrtle (Melina Bernecker), who brings on one of several major tragedies in Frame's life.

If one ever needs proof of Campion's ability -- and you might after In the Cut -- look at the first sexual scenes between Janet and Bernard (William Brandt) in Spain. There is a potent fascination in the way Campion places Fox against the wall, only smiling, as Bernard attempts to arouse her. The second it seems like he might, she ducks out the door. It doesn't really matter if it's her first sexual experience; Campion gives it such honesty and tenderness that we understand that it's the only sexual experience and affair that ever mattered.

There is no arguing that this is radiantly beautiful filmmaking. An Angel at My Table doesn't quite get to the poetic grandeur and dark themes that she explored later in The Piano, but the film is easily just as good as her dazzling debut, Sweetie. At almost three hours long, it could have used a trim but I'd rather it long and beautiful than short and clumsy. As stated earlier, Frame isn't exactly what you want your daughter to end up like, but maybe Campion is. If you're not sure, wait a decade or two for her biopic.

The new Criterion DVD includes a remastered transfer, commentary, an audio interview with Frame from 1983, and a making-of documentary.


An Angel At My Table Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 1990


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