An Angel at My Table

This most impolite of directors attacks the most polite of genres in a way that makes it feel like her own creation, and pays tribute to her source by bringing it so ferociously to life

DVD Watch

An Angel at My Table

Criterion, $39.95

During the making of An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion's three-part telefilm of Janet Frame's autobiography, the notoriously shy author visited the set for a week, on the first day scrupulously staying more than 50 feet away from the action, and each day inching closer to the camera and initiating contact with director, cast, and crew. As Campion tells about it on the commentary track, this meeting of minds provoked as much fear of offense or disappointment as pride and excitement at receiving the writer's blessing.

We don't get Frame's side of this story, but can only imagine it to be at least as fraught with emotional contradiction. After all, it was the events of her life being represented before the camera: the deaths of beloved family members, her institutionalization and electroshock treatment resulting from a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, and the 11th hour rescue of her mind when the publication of a volume of her fiction persuaded doctors not to go through with her scheduled lobotomy.

A tricky proposition that Campion pulled off with career-making success, the film turns the strained drama of the biopic to advantage by pushing the genre's fragmentary, episodic, even anti-dramatic qualities to an extreme while eliciting a miraculously seamless series of performances from Karen Fergusson, Alexia Keogh, and Kerry Fox as Janet Frame the child, adolescent, and adult, respectively. Events do not so much unfold as accumulate, with small details taking on significance both for the odd preoccupations they reveal and for the bigger events they precede, follow, or presage. Here, Campion's penchant for wild, inexplicable background action is put to its best use, throwing the relatively staid, TV-safe compositions off kilter and drawing attention to the pileup of ephemera, subtly depicting Frame's writing as a process of drawing together incidents and memories not unlike our efforts to follow or construct the film's narrative.

This most impolite of directors attacks the most polite of genres in a way that makes it feel like her own creation and pays tribute to her source by bringing it so ferociously to life.

Criterion's package here includes excerpts from Frame's autobiography, as well as an audio interview with the writer, drawing necessary attention to her bracingly direct style for those (like yours truly) unfamiliar with her books. The inevitable comparisons point toward the odd and difficult triangulation of character in storytelling, as Janet Frame struggles to construct a necessarily separate self on paper that Jane Campion and her bewigged young actresses work to embody on film, and through it all, our own private Janet Frames draw closer and closer to us.

Also Out Now

The Fly: Special Edition (Fox Home Entertainment, $19.98): In a very different sort of life story, a not-so-mad scientist (Jeff Goldblum) accidentally fuses his genes with those of a housefly and undergoes a harrowing transformation. Now finally available on DVD with extras and without the encumbrance of The Fly II, David Cronenberg's most popular and financially successful film is also one of his very best, a near-classical tragedy perfectly fusing the diseased-flesh-obsessed vision of its director with a proven commercial gimmick and Hollywood resources, for an uncommon remake that vastly improves on its predecessor. And it might be the only cinematic romance of the Eighties that could intentionally make you vomit.

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An Angel at My Table, Criterion, Jane Campion

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