Angel at My Table, An (1990): Jane Campion’s Tale of Writer Janet Frame, Starring Kerry Fox

Splendidly photographed by Stuart Dryburgh and beautifully acted by Kery Fox, “An Angel at My Table” was the second feature from New Zealander Jane Campion, after her stunning debut, “Sweetie,” in 1989.

A year later, Campion would become the hottest director in the world with “The Piano,” which won the Cannes Festival Palme d’Or and was nominated for multiple Oscars, winning awards for lead actress Holly Hunter and Campion’s screenplay.

Laura Jones’ screenplay is based on three volumes of autobiography of the novelist and poet Janet Frame (played by Fox): “To the Is-Land,” “An Angel at My Table,” and “The Envoy from Mirror City.”

“Angel at My Table” tells the story of a stubborn, plain, introverted Frame, whose thirst for knowledge and determination to be a writer set her apart in her isolated rural community, showing that genius and creativity can emerge in the most obscure and unlikely places.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

An Angel at My Table
Angel at my table movie poster.jpg

Through flashbacks, we get to know Frame’s past. The introverted girl, plain, bubble-haired redhead, was born into a poor, close-knit family in 1924. We see Frame as a shy child, then in college, where she finds herself increasingly alienated from her fellow students. When Frame’s lively, self-confident sister Isabel Glynis Angell) arrives, Janet, who’s awkward and unattractive (by conventional standards), looks worse by comparison.

Frame retreats into a life of increasing fantasy and isolation, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown. She’s committed to an institution, where she’s diagnosed incorrectly, it later turns out as an incurable schizophrenic. Then, leaving the hospital, she meets Frank Sageson (Martyn Sanderson), an eccentric writer who encourages her to broaden her perspectives by traveling. Slowly and gradually, Frame emerges from her shell, and by the time she returns to New Zealand, some peace of mind and steady life, if not exactly happiness, is achieved.

Campion has established a reputation for making off-center films about rejects and outcasts (Sweetie, The Piano), women who are shy, or awkward, or marginal, or all of the above. Her films offer an uncompromising look at ordinary lives, where chaos and darkness lurks beneath the surface of passivity and placidity.

An admirer of Frame’s novels since her school days, Campion builds her film around a heroine who defies Hollywood conventions as a protagonist of the much-debased genre, the artistic biopic. Unlike most Hollywood heroines, Frame is not beautiful or sexy or sophisticated, and her adventures are mostly intellectual, trips of the mind and soul rather than of her flesh.

Originally shot on 16 mm and 1-inch videotape as a three-part miniseries for Australian TV, “Angel at My Table” was then re-edited for 35mm theatrical release. I saw the movie at the Toronto Film Festival, before it was distributed by the then new division of Fine Line.

“Angels at My Table” doesn’t look like a TV movie, American or Australian for that matter. In fact, it makes a wonderful use of the small screen in exploring the intimacy of its subject. The acting is consistently superb. Karen Fergusson plays Janet Frame as a teenager and Alexia Keogh as a child, and Samantha Townsley plays Isabel Frame as a teenager and Katherine Murray-Cowper as a child.

Though adapted from three literary volumes, “Angels at My Table” is a cinematic experience, which is true to Campion’s thematic preoccupations in all of her work. If you have seen “Sweetie,” “The Piano,” “Portrait of a Lady,” and “Holy Smoke,” you will be able to detect Campion’s personal themes: The privations and anxieties of childhood and adolescence, the weird absurdities of ordinary life, the disconcertingly fine line between normality and madness, all depicted with an unsentimental honesty that veers abruptly but never jarringly between naturalism and surrealism, comedy and drama.

Campion deploys economically observed details to explore her heroine’s passionate, deceptively placid perception of the world. The film is devoid by none of the artist-biopicture clichs.

Frame, as embodied by three uncannily matched actresses, is bright but intensely passive, inhabiting a chaotic, arbitrary universe. Watching her slow and hard struggle to gain self-esteem and happiness, and progressing toward final liberation as a respected writer, is a profoundly moving and life-affirming experience.


Directed by Jane Campion
Produced by Grant Major, Bridget Ikin
Written by Laura Jones, based on To the Is-Land &, An Angel at My Table & The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame
Music by Don McGlashan
Cinematography Stuart Dryburgh
Edited by Veronika Jenet

Production company: ABC, Television New Zealand, Channel 4, Hibiscus Films

Distributed by Sharmill Films (Australia)
Fine Line Features (US)
Artificial Eye (UK)
Alliance Films (Canada)

Release date: September 5, 1990 (Venice Film Fest); September 1990 (US)

Running time: 158 minutes