With my recent discovery of another sprawling, chaotic video store to haunt, I finally tracked down a scratchy VHS copy of An Angel at My Table by Jane Campion, which has been surprisingly difficult for me to find considering that it was recently released by Criterion Collection. As usual, I’m sure the fact that it was directed by a woman and is about a woman writer has NOTHING to do with being unable to find it anywhere.
Anyway, the film is a biopic about New Zealand-born writer, Janet Frame, which starts with her working class childhood, extends through her adolescence, and on into her early adulthood with three separate actors for each phase. I really liked the movie, although I do have a couple complaints. For one thing, I did not have the benefit of closed captioning/subtitles while watching it, which caused me to miss a fair chunk of the dialogue between the thick accents and the poor quality of the VHS copy I watched. I would definitely recommend trying to get the DVD version if you can because I imagine subtitles will make it much easier to follow.
Secondly (and no doubt relatedly), the scene changes in the film are often pretty abrupt and several times I got confused about what was happening and who different characters were. There is no direct narration in the film so you have to pick information up as it moves along.
There is no direct narration in the film so you have to pick information up as it moves along. The edges become a little blurry in terms of how much time is actually passing from scene to scene, what the relationships between different characters are, etc. At a certain point, you kind of just have to let go of understanding a lot of the background particulars.
With that said, it was impossible for me not to identify with the main character and to feel compelled by her life story. As a card-carrying introvert, I always really appreciate movies that focus on people who are painfully shy, even if they make me cringe intensely. This movie is an intense, sensitive portrayal of the character that manages to pull her inner life out through a lot of subtle details in the landscape, the framing of the shots, the narrative choices, and last, but definitely not least, absolutely fantastic acting. I think Campion must have left a lot of blanks in the movie in terms of the story, not only for practical reasons, but also because this style forces the audience to watch the movie in the hyper-observant way that Janet Frame lived her whole life. By the end, you feel like you’ve really been inside her world, with all its beauty and pain. Much recommended.