Jane Campion’s delicate, almost leisurely construction of Kiwi Janet Frame’s autobiographies is one of those rare films that draw you completely into its world, so while watching you lose all sense of time and place. Frame’s life unfolds at so naturally, you may not notice the overlap of the three actresses (Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kerry Fox) playing the quirky girl with unruly red hair.
Though exceptionally bright, and a good student, Frame is an outcast on the playground, envying the popular girls who always know what to say. Yet, at home, despite the family’s poverty, she and her three sisters create a magical world where she is safe and completely loved.
When her adored older sister Myrtle drowns, Janet begins to unravel. Though she continues to study and finishes teachers college, her ability to cope with the ‘real’ world declines and she is sent to Seacliff, a mental hospital on the South Island where she is subjected to 200 shock treatments for schizophrenia and barely escapes a lobotomy because a book of her short stories has won a literary prize.
She emerges from this horror and with the help of writer Frank Sargeson and other writers and artists, slowly finds the strength to live in the world. This is an exceptional film and an exceptional story that would be highly recommended regardless of where it came from. That it is a New Zealand movie makes it an absolute must-see.
Unlike Campion’s The Piano (1993) which has yet to receive a decent DVD release, An Angel at My Table has been given a high-definition digital remaster, supervised by director of photography Stuart Dryburgh, so the look of the film itself is simply perfect; and the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack does justice to Don McGlashan’s melancholy score.
The producers have put together a surprisingly good set of special features, including a short making-of doco, deleted scenes, commentary with Campion, Fox & Dryburgh and a 23 minute radio interview done with Janet Frame for Radio New Zealand in 1984. Also included in the package is a 40-page booklet including an essay on Campion and extensive excerpts from Frame’s autobiographies. As good as it gets.