MOVIE REVIEW : A Disturbing but Uplifting ‘Angel at My Table’


The Janet Frame of “An Angel at My Table” is a writer of exceptional sensitivity. It shows up in her poetry and short stories, and it shows up in how she responds to the world. The smallest event can send her into a shimmering glee, or become unbearably dangerous and alienating.

What’s remarkable about Jane Campion’s 1991 movie is how strongly we sense Frame’s personality. “An Angel at My Table,” screening tonight to lead off the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts’ “Portrait of the Artist” film series, is disturbing because Frame is so easily disturbed, so affected by her environment. The movie gives us an idea of the price someone pays to be truly different.

In Frame’s case, she paid dearly on her way to becoming one of New Zealand’s most important writers. Campion’s 157-minute film, based on Frame’s autobiography and originally made as a three-part series for New Zealand television, follows her from her days as a little girl with wild red hair through her eight years in a mental institution to her startling success as a literary artist.


The most harrowing passages play out when Frame is committed to the hospital after her college instructors misunderstand her paralyzing shyness for aberrant behavior; later, psychologists misdiagnose her as schizophrenic.

Frame endured more than 200 shock-therapy treatments and was scheduled for a frontal lobotomy before her writing rescued her. She wrote (who knows how or when) while at the institution and, after her first book was published and received critical acclaim, authorities were forced to release her.

Campion handles these years with almost a passive hand, choosing not to inflame the already painful story. This works well because we already feel for Frame as a troubled soul, and thickening our connection to her would only result in bathos. The poignancy of seeing Frame trying to write or read poetry while abjectly waiting for another shock treatment has a matter-of-fact impact.

The tone set throughout by Campion (probably best known for her eccentric “Sweetie,” another movie about madness and family) is low-key and naturalistic. Small events happen quietly, and Campion lets them without much directorial disturbance. At times, the film is like reading a diary, full of tiny (and mundane, sometimes to the point of boredom) details, but they collectively add up to give dimension to a heroine who seems so private she resists becoming full-bodied on the screen.

There’s some frustration in that, and we never do really know what has made Frame what she is or what compels her to write, beyond a need to reflect on her own uneasy ways. The early scenes are especially confounding as Campion presents this chubby, silent girl who lives with four siblings in a poor but contented home. The environment is impoverished, but there seems to be much love from her mother and father. We know she needs to write because her dad gives her a nice notebook as a present.

Frame’s identity becomes clearer later on, especially when Kerry Fox emerges as the adult Janet. Fox is one of those actors who can reveal with minor nuance, and we can see the terrible self-consciousness (and ineffable, unsettling joys) that rule Frame’s personality. Campion just lets the story move along a straight line, and Fox inhabits the character, the camera never straying far from her face.


A great compliment to Campion is that the movie never seems less than genuine; it’s consciously anti-commercial. And when “An Angel at My Table” does steer toward a happy ending (this is a film about self-discovery and triumph, after all), even then it strives for gentle epiphany. After seeing all Frame has gone through, the last images of her twisting alone to the music of Chubby Checker carries the pleasure of watching someone restored.

* Jane Campion’s “An Angel at My Table” screens tonight at 7:30 at the Forum Theater, Festival of Arts grounds, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. $4 and $5. (714) 494-1145.