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Directorspective: Jane Campion

Fine Line Features presents


An Angel at My Table

Adapted from the autobiographical trilogy of Janet Frame: To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984) and The Envoy from Mirror City(1984), reprinted in 1989 as An Autobiography (Collected Edition)  (Auckland: Century Hutchinson) & posthumously as An Angel at My Table (London :Virago, 2008)

Screenplay adaptation by Laura Jones

Edited by Veronika Haussler

Photographed by Stuart Dryburgh

Produced by Bridget Ikin

Cast: Janet: Kerry Fox, Young Janet: Alexia Keogh, Teenage Janet: Karen Fergusson

Mum: Iris Churn, Dad: K.J. Wilson

Barbican – Cinema 1


10 April 2010






A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


This thoroughly absorbing film centres on the life of New Zealand writer Janet Frame (1924-2004) from her early years up until the time she returned to her homeland in 1963, having left in 1956. Frame was one of five children born to working class parents, whose family, though close, was plagued by tragedy, with two of her sisters drowning in separate incidents in their adolescence and her lone brother suffering from epilepsy. As a child, Frame unexpectedly won a poetry prize at school and thereafter, following encouragement from her father, she continued to lose herself in worlds of her own making through her writing. Following a university scholarship, away from home, in young adulthood, as a painfully shy primary school teacher, Frame walked out of a classroom when an inspector came to visit.  After that act, she was eventually, wrongfully diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalised for eight years where she would have undergone a lobotomy were it not for the fact that her first published work The Lagoon and Other Stories (Caxton, 1951) won the Hubert Church Memorial Award, one of New Zealand’s highest literary honours. Frame, with her uncontrollable shock of curly red hair and quiet, but intelligent, introspective and imaginative demeanour and tendencies was a natural non-conformist, which, only served to heighten her feasibility in this film as a metaphor for the many outsiders on whom such experimental techniques were being routinely enacted at that time.  Amazingly, Frame’s first two published works, which no doubt served as a mental buffer to the madness around her, were written while she was still living in the asylum. Following her release, four years after the publication of The Lagoon...much needed, and in her case, very brave solo travels on a writer’s grant took her to parts of America, Europe and London. Despite everything, Frame found not only solace, but joy in her writing, as have her many readers.

An Angel at My Table, based on Frame’s autobiographical trilogy addresses the notion of artistic ambivalence, especially as it applied to Frame’s ideas about herself, for she was once described by scholar Simone Oettli as ‘a writer who wanted simultaneous fame and anonymity’. However, Campion’s film not only helped to enlighten those who have not have read Frame’s life story, but it also, brought her unique canon of poetry and magical realist fiction into the literary foreground once more.

An Angel... has all the usual painstaking attention to detail which enthusiasts of Ms. Campion’s work have come to expect and admire, with many of the storyline’s side dramas having momentary, but nonetheless, nearly equal emphasis to their more central counterparts. For example, in ‘Part 2’ of the film, when Frame (sensitively played by Kerry Fox) is enjoying her time in Spain, among the seemingly austere but considerate natives, the way the two women caring for the house she is staying in scurry around, commenting in their native tongue and ultimately, praying for her soul, lighting candles as they do so forms an intriguing aside to the life situation of Frame (Fox) herself, and helps imbue her story with a stronger sense of place.  Campion also makes wonderful use of the potential of each silent interlude in the story, as evidenced by her actors riveting ability to allow us to seemingly, enter their thought processes, so we are always, ‘with’ them at any given moment. Far from eliminating mystery, this technique serves to enhance it, for just like us, the real life characters Campion’s actors represent are paradoxes and as a result, do not always do what we may assume they will. The fact that the camera also focuses on inanimate objects to the point where they become poignant and/or meaningful points of focus, such as in the case of the empty Van Gogh like working boots of Frame’s late father, serve as lessons in studied intensity. There is much bittersweet realism and social content in Campion’s approach too, in that a red dress once seen being worn with delight by Frame’s older, adolescent sister in one scene reappears later on in the film on a younger one, further emphasising both the cyclical nature of life as well as the fact that although the father was employed, the family were still part of the ‘working poor’ and thus needed to conserve.

Having marvelled over the seeming simplicity of Campion’s most recent, naturalistically paced film, Bright Star, centring on the love between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne during the last three years of the young man’s life, once again, seen through the eyes of a female protagonist, very unusual in that case,  I can only say that An Angel..., which won, among many other awards, the Grand Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1990, demonstrates the attentive and caring path the director was already on prior to her next film, The Piano, which won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1993. Just as Campion has done in 2009’s rightfully lauded Bright Star, in which viewers witness the deeply sad decline of a youthful, but terminally ill man with all that his illness entailed, such as a literally, bloody cough, she also had the courage to show us the extremely trying and turbulent life and circumstances of Janet Frame, i.e., as they would have been inside the madhouse where patients were shamelessly locked away and more or less left to their own devices.  

Three actresses: Kerry Fox, (adult), Alexia Keogh (teenager) and Karen Fergusson (child) play Ms. Frame at various stages of her life and each of them does so brilliantly, thanks no doubt, to Campion’s organic style of directing. In a recent interview, Campion revealed that she leaves much of what ultimately becomes the inner life of the characters, which her actors manage to convey so beautifully, to their own instincts, making her a wonderfully collaborative director to work with, rather than for. Iris Churn and K. J. Wilson also show great warmth and naturalism as Mum and Dad, as do all of the young actors playing Janet’s sisters and brother. Kerry Fox leaves a particularly strong impression as she handles adult Janet’s trials with a touching sense of guileless candour and vulnerability. However, Keogh’s sweetly naive, youthful Janet and Fergusson’s typically tubby, much teased school girl Janet are also fine portrayals in their own rights.

The colour palette of the film is naturalistic with slight tinges of surrealism, particularly in the childish segments, when earthy, Rembrandt tones rest easily against the lush landscape greens and blues, which is fitting for an author who experienced and finally, allied her own paradoxes. Opening segments in which childish Janet gets into trouble at school in an attempt to become the popular girl she’s always dreamed of being are shot in such a way that we are always, on a child’s level, looking up at the adults, good or bad. Conversely, Janet’s youthful years allow us to not only see things through her eyes, but to see her how others might and feel pity for her holey stockings and tattered jumpers, among a sea of well groomed and heeled young ladies. The final segment of this riveting story allows us to fully appreciate Janet’s brutally honest sense of humility, loneliness and undeniably saving creativity. As a character drawn from life, Janet Frame ultimately comes across as a deeply gifted and driven artist whose expression cannot be denied, and, by the film’s ambivalent but thankfully, hopeful conclusion, we are able to share in her triumph. As adaptations go, Laura Jones’ handling of Frame’s trilogy must surely be one of the most effective and affecting ever.

An, as often as not, a beautiful film to look at, but it is also, given its subject matter and attentive directorial approach, a singularly fascinating one to watch, so much so that its 160 minutes fairly flew by with many in the riveted audience remaining in their seats at the end, hoping for more.


The Jane Campion Directorspective, which began with the multi-award winning film The Piano on Easter Sunday afternoon, continues with Campion’s lauded adaptation of Henry James’ The Portrait of A Lady on Sunday, April 18th at 4pm and ends with Bright Star on Sat. April 24th at 2pm, all in Cinema 1.



For tickets:


Tickets: Standard - £7.50 online (£9.50 full price) / Barbican Members - £6.50 online (£7.50 full price) / Concessions £7.50 / Under 15 £4.50







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