An Angel at My Table
This one along with Alambrista! is one of my new absolute favorites. I had heard of An Angel at My Table before. I'd seen the excellent trailer at a college movie society. But I'd never seen it before and I probably never would have seen it if I hadn't undertaken this little blogging challenge. This is one of those movies that make the whole experience worth it.
An Angel at My Table was directed in 1990 by Jane Campion and retells the life story of author Janet Frame. Right from the start the movie captured my attention and my heart. I love everything about this film starting with the infectious theme music based on Robert Burns' Duncan Gray. The film opens with Janet (or Jean) as a pudgy child with a shock of curly red hair. She is incredibly shy and nervous around other people. In the very first scenes she steals some money from her dad's pocket so she can buy gum. But she doesn't keep it for herself. She's gives it all away to the kids in her class. You quickly understand this is a desperate attempt to make friends. The scheme is ruined by an uncaring teacher and poor Janet goes from Ms Popular to Ms Pariah instantly. But Janet has a natural gift for word play and even as a youngster she attracts praise for her writing.
Janet grows to become awkward teenager and later and awkward woman. Her social anxiety is misdiagnosed as schizophrenia and she spends 8 years getting electric shocks! She's about to have a brain operation but fortunately recognition of her writing saves her. She then spends years putting her life back together, a process that takes her far and wide. In the end she's with her family and has found a safe place where she can be herself.
This brief description doesn't do the story justice. It's a deep and rich story. One element I'll touch on is Janet's relationship with her sisters. For a person with as much social anxiety as Janet, family is one of the few safe havens. Janet is fortunate to have three sisters whose closeness is summarized in a brilliant scene where they are all sharing a bed. That's what makes losing her sisters all the more tragic. Her older sister Myrtle drowns in the town swimming pool. Immediately getting the news Janet's younger sister Isabel arrives still damp. The family hugs her. The scene is naturalistic but it becomes a chilling foreshadow of Isabel's own drowning years later.
Janet is played by three different actresses. Kerry Fox, deservedly garnered much of the attention but the other actresses who played Janet Alexia Keogh and Karen Fergusson also deserve heaps of praise. As for Fox she was amazing. It's stunning to see her in this and realize that this movie was made four years before she costarred with Chris Eccleston and Ewan McGregor in Shallow Grave.
This is a film that should be devoured by up and coming directors. It is a marvelous accomplishment. The writing is a little episodic but what I love about this story and what I hope other writers pick up on is how this film treats artistic accomplishment. Perhaps Janet's writing saved her from having a bit of brain removed but throughout this film she remains pretty ambivalent about her life as an artist. She gets published which is a big deal to some people but she doesn't really feel different herself. It doesn't help at all with her personal troubles. And when a publisher does start throwing compliments at her she doesn't know how to receive it. Writing is what she does. She doesn't do it for the money or ride through town in a Rolls Royce. This script is very wise about art. It is important but it's not the only thing.