Thursday 3 December 2009

An Angel At My Table (Review)

If the discovery of certain creative skills sets many people on a collision course against conventional notions, then it should not come as a surprise that this is the same fate that awaits film-makers who dare to stray from the norm. In Jane Campion's 1990 sophomore cinematographic outing, 'An Angel at My Table', the opening shot is from the point of view of a newborn. We see a shadow, a shape, arms. There's no coherence or logic in the sequence, just as there's none in a baby's first days outside the womb. Suddenly we hear a female voice calling out: 'Come on, darling, come on!' The fact that this scene could well be the background to a horror film or a thriller, serves only to illustrate how effectively the New Zealander director taps into our innermost emotions. She literally steps back and allows the infant to take on the leading role. Next we see the baby-turned-toddler running through the grass with her brothers and sisters. Again, Jane remains on the periphery, the camera doing the talking.

'An Angel at My Table' narrates the story of the New Zealand author Janet Frame, based on her three-volume autobiography. Already at an early age, Janet displayed a precocious ability for language. However, her genius was never acknowledged properly when she was younger and as a consequence she spent the better part of a decade in mental hospitals due to a misdiagnosis. An emotional breakdown brought on by family bereavements led doctors to believe she was suffering from schizophrenia. The film charts several of Janet's stages through her prolific creative life: from her years living in small towns in Otago and Southland to her training as a teacher in Dunedin; from the publication of her first novel, 'Owls Do Cry', to her stay in London, where she wrote her next five novels.

Jane Campion's treatment of her subject matter is a classic example of cinema as a medium on which to explore the human psyche. And the fact that she met the reclusive author before the cameras began to roll makes the cinematic experience all the more rewarding for the viewer. Here's a female director who deeply cares for the human being behind the writer. The evidence is everywhere: scenes whose framing is not constrained by time or space, as in Janet's stay in Spain and her subsequent love affair with another writer; Frame's face when she is hospitalised for the first time at a mental institution, initially showing resignation and later refusal. This is an open-ended film with many shades of grey. And above all, life flows through it. This is a very organic movie in which Campion addresses Janet's insecurities: her teeth, her red hair, her clothes. At times it feels as if she is criticising the positions of female artists in society.

But all of the above would have been nigh impossible without the exellent performance by Kerry Fox. In what was her big screen debut, Kerry totally made hers the role of Janet Frame. Each smile, each vacant and distant gaze in the faraway horizon, each mannerism was a masterful display of thespian superbness. Unsurprisingly she is reunited with Jane Campion in the latter's most recent feature, 'Bright Star'.

Although I first saw this movie in 1994 (or was it '95?) at the Havana Latin American Film Festival, I was recently reminded of it by Willow, from Life at Willow Manor and rented it straight away from LoveFilm. This new company is a very good and cheap option for residents in the UK who are interested in non-mainstream movies and are fed-up with what the local Blockbusters video shop has to offer. Many thanks.

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 6th December at 10am (GMT)


  1. Hola!!
    Thankyou for this review... I used to be a member of Lovefilm until I went into hospital earlier this year, and I discovered so many wonderful gems, like the Story of the Weeping Camel and the Cup, which you must also rent. The Cup is about a Tibetan monastery full of young monks desperate to watch the World Cup, but the monastery does not have a tv. How to get a tv in time? :) It is so wonderful!

  2. Excellent review, Mr. Cuban. This film is what started me on a path of the works of Janet Frame. She was truly a genius.

  3. This sounds brilliant - I will try and see the film - and read her works too. Thank you.

  4. Oh, yes, Mr. Cuban. This is a terrific movie and I love Janet Frame's books as well. You're such a wonderful film reviewer and I like to be reminded of some of these more obscure, great films!

  5. I'll have to watch this film now. I love how you point out new and interesting things to me (or old and interesting things!).



  6. Hi Mr C

    as a NZer I read Janet Frame many moons ago as a student and still have wired into my memory the lines...

    Oh my Lord Omlette and parsley but I was kissed, Scrambled egg I was kissed, kissed buttercup and cathedral for the first time in my life....

    Happy days

  7. Cuban: Like Elizabeth, I thank you for reminding me of this great film. Time to enjoy it again!

  8. I am placing my order with Netflix immediately.
    Wouldn't want to miss this one..thank you!

  9. I've never seen this movie, Cuban, but now I'll have to order it. Your review was simply fantastic, and it pointed out so many aspects of the movie that would appeal to my taste. This especially stands out: "This is an open-ended film with many shades of grey." That sounds like my kind of movie. Thank you for this awesome review, and for always sharing such precious gems. Have a beautiful weekend!


  10. Never really got into Jane Campion, but you may me think it might be worth persevering.

  11. Thanks for the reminder, Cuban, I too saw it far too long ago, and remember the feeling that it was, simply, like watching a life.
    Fabulous film, and Kerry Fox astonishing.
    I shall seek it out forthwith.

  12. It is such a wonderful film, nearly as good as the books.

    I love Janet Frame's writing and put that together with Jane Campion's cinematic skills, (I think again of The Piano) and it could hardly be anything but a wonderful and memorable success.

    Thanks for this review. It is good to be reminded yet again of these two great talents.

  13. Visto il Trailer adesso. Molto interessante!! Sará uno dei prossimi film che vedró prossimamente!!

    Grazie per averlo fatto conoscere Cuban.

    saluti da Colonia,


  14. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

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