Through Janet Frame, Campion not only shows how an artist is made but offers a rebuke to the stereotypical veneer of an artist.
Watching Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table nearly 30 years after its 1990 release puts in contrast the bloat of recent biopics. It tells the story of Janet Frame, one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed writers, from the poverty she was born into in 1924 to the early days of her success some 30 years later. A plain girl with a thatch of unruly red Brillo for hair, Janet suffers not only from the low-expectations of casual, patriarchal misogyny but crippling shyness and depression. She is an oddity, the type of person who refuses tea with her colleagues because the thought of such simple courtesy is profoundly terrifying.
In less deft hands, this adaptation of three of Frame’s memoirs – To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City – would focus on the artist and her alleged mental illness. A John Williams’ score would punctuate the rousing moments, and Meryl Streep would stretch all credulity by playing the 30-year-old Frame. But Campion creates a much quieter film due in part to her reserved subject and the introspective nature of making art itself. Writing is a dull process to observe and not the stuff of a 158-minute film, but the parental neglect, sibling rivalries and assorted passions and tragedies that make a life are.
Campion lets her versions of Frame slowly unspool in three distinctive acts with three actors playing the writer at different stages of her life. In succession, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson and Kerry Fox portray Frame from child to teen to 30-something, blending together seamlessly to create the impression that it is one performance achieved over time in the manner of Boyhood. This transcendental act goes beyond claims of good casting and creates the emotional resonance of the film. The interweaving of the performances is so complete that the notion of three actors feels more impossible than one.
Campion separates Frame’s world into spaces to dream and spaces to fear. Young Janet gets to walk on verdant farmland where her imagination wanders and coalesces. These look like the same locations Peter Jackson would use to create his Shire, a place of impossibly vivid greens and blues. Campion never lets the fantasy wander beyond children cloud-gazing, and she grounds her characters with the tactility of dirty fingernails and threadbare dresses. But the rest of the world is bright and beautiful when Janet dreams. Even the classroom for children with special needs Janet has been sent to is radiant and joyous when contrasted with the regular classroom she previously attended. The teacher of the special needs children is ebullient and supportive, giving Janet space to investigate her writing. The rest of the school is shot bleakly, weighted down by authoritarian drabness.
The home of Janet’s parents is presented in the same manner. The room she shares with her sisters is light with white walls, while the common areas where adults reside are shadowed and menacing. Campion fills her frame with quotidian menaces to torment Janet, ranging from her father in a foul temper to the crowds and noises of her university. In areas drained of color, her red hair makes her a source of resonance, forever an attractor of unwanted attention. Campion plays with the contrast between the inescapable physical facts of Janet’s appearance to her desire to remain a wallflower, creating a structural tension that causes the viewer to feel the character’s anxiety. Attention from authority figures serves Janet poorly whenever it is received, a fact that reaches its apex when a striking young professor she’s entrusted to read her work uses that work to have her committed. A misdiagnosis of schizophrenia follows.
Janet Frame spent eight years in an asylum called “Sunnyside,” and that sequence has none of the defiance of a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The scenes are nearly drained of color as Janet endures a constant regimen of shock therapy. A doctor happily tells her that her treatment has progressed to a scheduled lobotomy, but her writing saves her. Before the procedure can happen, her first book wins an award. One form of authority cancels out another, and her mind is spared.
An Angel at My Table originally aired as a three-part miniseries in New Zealand, a harbinger of the prestige TV that was decades away, and that format can make the film feel unnecessarily protracted at parts. For a time, it is a movie about daydreaming, and that sort of bucolic meandering hinders the pace of the movie’s first chapter. But the movie holds you with its quiet deliberateness and astounding performances. Through Janet Frame, Campion not only shows how an artist is made but offers a rebuke to the stereotypical veneer of an artist. She suffers in very common ways and, like so many of us, is grossly underestimated.