An Angel at My Table Review

An Angel at My Table is based on New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s autobiography. The film, subtitled “A Trilogy”, was originally made in three parts for New Zealand television. It was re-edited into a slightly shorter theatrical version, thus becoming Jane Campion’s third feature (after 2 Friends, also made for TV but shown at film festivals, and Sweetie). This retains the part titles from the miniseries, each one the titles of the three volumes of Frame’s book: “To the Is-Land”, “An Angel at My Table”, “The Envoy from Mirror City”. Born in 1924, Janet (known as “Jean” as a child), grew up in New Zealand. But tragedy struck early, when her sister accidentally drowns. As an adult, Janet suffers a nervous breakdown, is misdiagnosed a schizophrenic and spends eight years in a mental hospital. By that time she has begun to write, and it’s only her winning a literary award that saves her from a leucotomy. In the final episode, Janet leaves New Zealand and travels and finds love in England and Spain, before returning home.

You can tell from the opening scenes that An Angel at My Table is no conventional biopic. It begins with brief, disconnected scenes, like fragmentary early memories. External events only appear when they impinge on Janet’s consciousness: World War Two, for example, only becomes a reality when she sees her father in a soldier’s uniform. Jane Campion’s films deal with emotion that’s strange, singular and disruptive – those who display it are misunderstood, and sometimes (as in Sweetie and this film) even regarded as mad. Kerry Fox plays the adult Janet (Alexia Keogh plays Janet as a child, Karen Fergusson as a teenager) as someone deeply uncomfortable in her own skin, painfully shy and nervous. Although she doesn’t appear until the end of Part One, Fox dominates the film. She’s gone on to become perhaps one of the finest screen actresses of her generation, but this was her breakthrough role. The remainder of the cast are all well chosen and give convincing performances, but necessarily their screen time is brief.

An Angel at My Table was shot in 16mm and, though that was no doubt due to the circumstances of its production, it seems the right choice as the film, however vibrant it may look, lacks the slickness of 35mm. It has a slightly grainy look that fits the subject matter. Campion and her director of photography Stuart Dryburgh vary the colour schemes to match the emotional hue of the scene: bright colours predominate during Janet’s childhood in the countryside; later scenes in the city are lit much colder and flatter. At Janet’s worst moments, such as her sister’s drowning and the whole sequence in the mental hospital, Campion and Dryburgh desaturate the colour almost entirely.

There’s a lot that’s admirable about this film, though its character-led narrative won’t be to all tastes. Two and a half hours is almost too much to take in in one sitting, and the final part does flag in places: perhaps this film might be best appreciated as it was originally intended, in three parts.

To clear up a possible confusion: the packaging of this DVD bears an OFLC PG rating, but after the distributor logos the first thing that appears is a M 15+ rating. A check reveals that the film was originally rated M (for “adult themes, occasional coarse language, mild sexual depictions”) then re-rated PG. This is somewhat lenient (An Angel at My Table is a BBFC 15 and a MPAA R); although I doubt many children – except for students studying Frame’s work – will be much interested, parents should take note.

Siren’s DVD is full-frame. An Angel at My Table was shown in cinemas in a wider ratio (probably 1.66:1 or 1.75:1) but it seems to have been composed for 4:3, as befits its televisual origins. The DVD transfer is very good, respecting the film’s use of colour. Its limitations are those of the source material: some grain and occasional lacks in shadow detail.

The soundtrack is mono, as per the original. It’s a very professional mix, with dialogue clearly audible and Don McGlashan’s music, including a lilting main theme, sounding fine. There are no subtitles, unfortunately, but an adequate twenty-eight chapter stops.

Campion didn’t contribute to the commentary on the Holy Smoke DVD, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there isn’t a commentary here. This film would benefit from some supplementary material, such as further information about Frame (who is still alive as of this writing), but it’s absent. Biographical material about the principal cast and crew is a basic extra that is missing here. What we do get are a trailer and some deleted scenes. The trailer comes from the USA, as given away by the MPAA approval notice at the start. It runs 1:47 and, unlike the feature, is letterboxed in what looks like 16:9 shifted upwards slightly. It’s one of those tradition-of-quality efforts which aims to sell the film by means of critical quotes and mentions of awards won. The six deleted scenes all appeared in the miniseries version but were cut from the theatrical release. They can be selected individually from a menu but play one after the other, total running time 3:21. They are: from Part One, “Outside Toilet”, “Skipping”, “The Princess and the Frog”; from Part Two, “On the Train”; from Part Three, “Collision in London”, “Janet Meets a Woman in the Mountains”.

This DVD is an attractive souvenir of a key film from a major modern director, showcasing a great performance from Kerry Fox. Picture and sound are as good as they could be, but the extras are something of a missed opportunity.

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