Janet Frame alongside the three different actresses that play her, (l-r) Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and Kerry Fox
AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE – made for TV A
Australia New Zealand Great Britain USA (157 mi) 1990 d: Jane Campion
My brave spirit!
Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil
Would not infect his reason?
Not a soul
But felt the fever of the mad and play'd
Some tricks of desperation.
—Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 1 Scene 2, 1611 The Tempest - Page 397 - Google Books Result
Originally made as a three-part television series, Campion was initially reluctant to let it be released theatrically, eventually winning a handful of awards (seven) at the Venice Film Festival in 1990, yet this is one of the better biopic cinematic experiences, told in three parts, covering all three in a trilogy of autobiographical volumes by New Zealand writer Janet Frame, To the Is-land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984), and The Envoy from Mirror City (1985), and a film that defiantly probes underneath the surface of the lead female character. Given a more modernistic context in that the film, a collection of various fragments in her life, leads to a wholistic overall view, as the life of Janet Frame literally materializes before our eyes, filled with literary passages and extraordinarily subjective insight, where the film is a profoundly revelatory work that expresses something close to the depths of the writer’s soul. Reminiscent of an earlier portrayal of Hollywood actress Frances Farmer in Jessica Lange’s brilliant portrayal in FRANCES (1982), both women spent years confined to institutions for perceived mental health issues with a condition that was believed to be incurable, subject to electric shock treatments and targeted for a recommended lobotomy, which, viewed in historical hindsight, is one of the cruelest and most destructive medical procedures mankind ever invented, yet both of these women came frightfully close to having the procedure. It was her intimacy of the psychological terrors inflicted on patients during extensive hospital treatment that led the young artist to examine her life so closely, finding language for the darkest recesses of her imagination, exposing what amounts to hidden secrets to the world through an obsession with the healing power of literature. Arguably New Zealand’s most distinguished author, Campion, a fellow New Zealander, fills the screen with indelible images of her own homeland while scrutinizing Frame’s life with methodical precision. With a screenplay by Laura Jones, who also wrote the adaptation of the Henry James novel in Campion’s later film with Nicole Kidman in THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (1996), this film also has one of the best uses of music by Don McGlashan which couldn’t be more perfectly integrated throughout, creating a fragile, sensory experience that is unique to films. But first and foremost is the character of Janet Frame, played by three different actresses, Karen Fergusson as a child, Alexia Keogh as an adolescent, and Kerry Fox as an adult, where Fox, so brilliant in Patrice Chéreau’s INTIMACY (2001), offers the performance of her career in her very first role, yet another unique discovery by Campion, criminally overlooked by the Academy Awards, as she was not even nominated, yet unlike the character of Sweetie (1989), whose fierce individuality may have been too toxic for some, Frame’s vulnerability invites the audience in, allowing us to feel her social anxiety, hiding recognizable fears and anxieties with an uncomfortable smile, caught out of sorts, like a deer in the headlights, almost entirely with looks and gestures, barely uttering a word, as she suffers from extreme sensitivity and acute shyness, offering an inner narration as a window to her soul where she becomes socially isolated at college, “Too shy to mix, too scared to enter the Union building, I was more and more alone, and my only romance was in poetry and literature.”
The author of twelve novels, three short story collections, one children’s book, two books of poetry (one published posthumously), and three volumes of autobiography, Frame grew up in the South Island of New Zealand in dire poverty, the second daughter in a family of four girls and a boy, where her father was a railroad engineer, and though he kept his job during the depression years of the 1930’s, the family had little money to spare. In the opening moments viewers are introduced to a young girl with an explosion of red/orange hair, like the Little Orphan Annie comic strip character, where it feels like a satiric reference to Campion’s first film short, AN EXERCISE IN DISCIPLINE — PEEL (1982), where all three characters have bright red hair, yet there are none of the skewed angles and experimental shots on display here, instead it’s shot by Stuart Dryburgh in a much more conventional manner, featuring remarkable landscapes, where humans are dwarfed by green fields and the grandiosity of the land, made to resemble smaller creatures. Deprived of material possessions, there are many family songs in Janet’s childhood that recur later in the film as familiar musical motifs, such as “Duncan Gray,” a Scottish folk song heard throughout, an angel at my table YouTube (31 seconds), yet they play a role early on in contributing to family unity, as Janet seems content with her warm and loving family. Perhaps starved for friendship, she steals money to treat her classmates to gum, yet ends up being branded a thief, made to stand in front of the blackboard with her back to the class in utter humiliation, which becomes a personal catastrophe, especially when she’s separated from the rest of the class and placed with several obviously disabled kids. Scorned and humiliated, perhaps this is a hint of what’s to come. With four sisters to a single bed, seen amusingly practicing shifting together, all turning simultaneously, Janet has a close relationship with her sisters, reading vociferously, comparing her family to the Brontë sisters, while her brother developed epileptic seizures and was regularly beaten by her father. Meeting a friend outside the family was a revelation, a neighbor girl named Poppy, where the two playfully re-enacted various abuses they witnessed, violent fathers and puritanically strict teachers, An Angel at my table YouTube (4:02), yet the curious way the children are filmed feels almost magical, holding our spellbound interest with intoxicating musical selections, yet perhaps their closeness aroused fear in their parents, as Janet’s father forbid them from seeing one another again. Often framed in long walks down a lonely highway or through sheep-ridden acres of farmland, her awkwardness increased during puberty, becoming embarrassed by her unruly red hair and her decayed teeth. Things only got worse when her eldest sister Myrtle drowned in a local swimming pool, an event that was preceded by happy events, as the family took photographs on a family holiday, yet when looking at them afterwards, the view of Myrtle was blurred, where she is strangely missing from view, like an ominous omen announcing her fate.
But it wasn’t until Janet went off to college at the University of Dunedin, studying to be a teacher, that she found it painfully shy to interact with the other girls, afraid to enter the student common room, instead taking refuge in spending her time alone in her room, immersing herself in a world of imagination and literature in order to escape from reality, writing poems and short stories, many of which were published in school publications. Her sister Isabel joined her at school, yet they were eventually forced to separate, leading to an existential moment, “So this is how it was, face to face with the future, living apart from Isabel, pretending that I was not alone, and that teaching is what I’d longed to do all my life.” Astoundingly, her sister Isabel drowned shortly thereafter, creating yet another inexplicable personal loss. When the day arrived that she should finally stand before a group of young students as their teacher, with an administrator observing from the back of the classroom, she froze, once again standing with her back to the class, mirroring a childhood incident, where the camera’s focus is suddenly on the piece of chalk in her hand, as if time has stopped, yet the class becomes restless and uneasy, where she’s forced to excuse herself, leading to the most wondrous scene of the film, where the exquisite music of Kathleen Ferrier sings Schubert’s “An die Musik” an angel at my table YouTube (3:38), her favorite composer, as Janet runs away with tears streaming down her face, unable to contain herself, finding herself suddenly outside where she is filled with desperation and anxiety, having what amounts to a nervous breakdown, yet the transcendent voice of Ferrier, so quietly dramatic, registering such clarity, unmatched tonal richness, and emotional warmth, holds the screen. Frame’s interior world was collapsing, “I felt completely isolated. I knew no one to confide in, to get advice from; and there was nowhere I could go. What, in all the world, could I do to earn my living and still live as myself, as I knew myself to be. Temporary masks, I knew, had their place; everyone was wearing them, they were the human rage; but not masks cemented in place until the wearer could not breathe and was eventually suffocated.” It was her writing talent, however, that brought special attention to her personal life, as she acknowledges in one paper swallowing a handful of pills in what was probably a suicide attempt. It was this autobiographical observation that led one of her college professors to refer her for further psychiatric examinations where it’s revealed that she’s schizophrenic, perhaps the singlemost significant event in her life, as she spent the next eight years drowning in the as yet untold atrocities of the New Zealand mental institutions, including the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. What follows is an immersion into personal nightmares and horrors, as she’s thrown in with more seriously disturbed patients with little to no education, who literally can’t control themselves, where patients were beaten for bedwetting, who scream and cry out all hours of the day and night, yet she’s dumped into their presence for what was described as “a period of rest.” Viewers immediately recognize the shocking indignity of suddenly descending into barbaric conditions, yet she was forced to receive more than 200 electric shock treatments, “each the equivalent, in degree of fear, to an execution.” One of the more ghoulish scenes of the film is a strange dance party taking place in the asylum, an unsettling moment that couldn’t feel more twisted.
Recalling in her autobiography, An Angel at My Table, An Angel at My Table: The Complete Autobiography:
The attitude of those in charge, who unfortunately wrote the reports and influenced the treatment, was that of reprimand and punishment, with certain forms of medical treatment being threatened as punishment for failure to ‘co-operate’ and where ‘not co-operate’ might mean a refusal to obey an order, say, to go to the doorless lavatories with six others and urinate in public while suffering verbal abuse by the nurse for being unwilling. ‘Too fussy are we? Well, Miss Educated, you’ll learn a thing or two here.
After eight years, with no signs of improvement, Frame was scheduled for a lobotomy, as even her mother was persuaded to sign the permission documents, as we see a group of patients wearing head wraps, presumably those that survived the operation, with orderlies helping them walk the grounds, but she was only spared the operation at the last minute when her doctor happened to read in the newspaper that she won a national prize, the Hubert Church Memorial Award, for her book of short stories, The Lagoon and Other Stories. Astonishingly, at the age of 29, Frame emerged from this episode with her sanity intact, writing “It is little wonder that I value writing as a way of life when it actually saved my life.” With the help of Frank Sargeson (Martyn Sanderson), a gay New Zealand writer of some repute and notoriety, he invited Frame to come live in a trailer on his grounds, allowing her to write in solitude, where she immediately set to work on Owls Do Cry, her first published novel in 1957, which surprised them both by being immediately published. Receiving a grant for her artistic work, she travels to London and Spain as a published author, yet her humility is at the heart of her appeal, described by Campion as “an unremarkable heroine who allowed people to experience their own vulnerability.” Through various travails, her reservation gets lost in the mail and she loses her luggage, among other things, yet she remains isolated, spending much of her time in her room, where the tone shifts from absurd comedy, especially in the form of Patrick (David Letch), a bigoted Irish tenant who tries to school her on the ways of the world, repeatedly asking if she’s “fancy-free,” still a virgin, thinking he’s being romantically protective, to the strangeness of the Spanish women who are forever scrubbing the floors and cleaning their building, surrounded by religious icons, while spreading gossip about this hopelessly “fallen” woman, to the inhibitions of free-wheeling 50’s tourists traveling through Europe, where she discovers her first love affair with an American history professor, taking a break from writing, where her passions are beautifully expressed by swimming nude in the open sea, but alas, he must return to America for the fall term once summer is over. While the film accentuates the romantic backdrop of a small, Spanish coastal town, it also addresses her very real fears when she’s left pregnant and alone, without the man ever knowing, where in an excruciatingly sad scene she loses the baby, adding a female dimension on the summer holiday that most films never explore. Elevated feelings of anxiety lead to a voluntary hospitalization in London, where she’s surprised to learn, “Finally it was discovered that I never suffered from schizophrenia. At first the truth seemed more terrifying than the lie. How could I now ask for help when there was nothing wrong with me?” What she was experiencing was the residual effects from the many years of electric shock treatments, as it takes years for the body to calm down afterwards. This stunning revelation of an earlier misdiagnosis seems to clear an open path for the rest of her life, where she was content to simply write. By the end of the film, she’s a notorious artist that the press wants to photograph and write stories about, a local celebrity when she returns to her hometown, and for a very brief moment, even dances the twist, An Angel At My Table End YouTube (2:14). It should be pointed out that Kerry Fox is simply phenomenal, onscreen for nearly every shot in the second half of the film, showing an emotional range that is quite simply breathtaking, where certainly part of Campion’s unique gift comes in her remarkable talent for casting. Sensitive and deeply moving, with only spare use of dialogue, this is a uniquely inventive character study that doubles as a living novel that develops before our eyes, something of a delight all the way through, where the uncredited music of a Schubert sonata, Alfred Brendel Schubert - Piano Sonata in B Flat Major, D. 960 Second Movement ... YouTube (9:38), plays throughout, heightening the gravity, as does that original folk theme played at the outset, An Angel At My Table (OST) by Don McGlashan on Spotify, adding a solemn grace to the outstanding artistry onscreen.