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An Angel at My Table (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on March 8, 2013

One of my favorite films, and revisiting it has been a treasured experience.  A treasure to witness the awakening of a personality and a talent, Janet Frame.  We see major beats in Frame’s life… the heartbreaking deaths of two siblings, for instance.  In terms of dramatic narrative, the largest turn of events would be her soul-crushing eight-year stay in a mental institution, misdiagnosed with schizophrenia.  But this is in fact the weakest section of the film, the one that feels closest to cliché.  It’s the smaller moments that resonate the strongest, the shaping of an individual through minor childhood humiliations, awkward encounters, the details of a life building.  Like Terence Davies, Campion strings together these seemingly inconsequential but psychologically significant events, drawing a map of memory.

Young Janet and her siblings and her friends are always at play, mimicking adults and each other, trying out theatrical poses and dramatic flourishes.  A story, a song, a dance… these artistic expressions of the soul are emphasized.  Throughout, Janet — a stunning performance by Kerry Fox (the younger Janets, Alexia Keogh and Karen Fergusson, are quite good as well) — is quietly observing, testing the waters to see which traits fit her, seeking out her persona.  We frequently see her staring out windows and through doorways, her growing shyness and insecurity separating her from the rest of the world.  Others are full of advice (usually bad advice) for how she should live her life.  Watching her grow into her own person is an exceptionally fulfilling journey.  In the end, it is us looking in on Janet.  She’s having a moment that is purely her own… the rapture of penning a particularly good line.  It’s a feeling I’ve had a few times, a rare delight.  She’s found her voice.

As I watch, I am deeply affected by Janet’s setbacks, and feel triumphant from her successes, both large and small.  Her discoveries of her literary talents, sensual pleasures, her point of view… these are the viewer’s discoveries to share.  Fox’s performance evokes a strong sense of empathy, perhaps because I’m somewhat shy and nervous myself.  The cinematography is also excellent, whether highlighting the lush greens of the New Zealand countryside, the cold blues and grays of the asylum, or the wild red curls atop Frame’s head.  It is appropriate (but mere linguistic coincidence) that a story about a woman named Frame would be told with such emphasis on frames.  Janet is often boxed in, hemmed out, isolated… yearning to belong but also yearning to look inward.

An intensely moving and rewarding film.  Rating: Masterpiece (96)


4 Responses to “An Angel at My Table (rewatch)”

  1. Gorgeous review, Martin. I love your last line, “yearning to belong but yearning to look inward.” This captures Frame perfectly, and with this tension, she totally captures my heart. One of my favorite characters on film ever maybe.

  2. […] 15. An Angel at My Table (1990, Jane Campion) […]

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