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Femme Filmmakers Festival Review: An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion)

Transient light dances through the slits between wooden boards, and the sounds of voices dance with it. Those people are up there in their revelry and companionship while she sits with her solitary typewriter – her only avenue into their world.

This scene from late in Jane Campion’s 1990 film An Angel at My Table is a such a perfect visual example of the loneliness of its main character – Janet Frame (played at various points in the film by Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson and Kerry Fox). At every turn, she is deemed abnormal.

An Angel at My Table

In fact, she is sent to the hospital for years for what others incorrectly deem as schizophrenia. Surely there is something different about her. She cannot relate to those around her. She struggles with crippling fear and anxiety. But it is precisely her abnormality – that is, her unique gift of writing – that truly sets her apart.

For anyone who loves to write, the feeling of being unable to communicate in any other way but through the written word will be a familiar one. It is frustrating. At the same time, it is liberating in a way. You know that you can put all your meaning and intention into this piece of writing, but it is frustrating when you cannot communicate with such vigor through other means. Janet deals with this phenomenon, but at each turn I was struck by her incredible courage in continuing to push forward.

Campion’s direction, along with the script by Laura Jones, has such empathy for Frame. This is achieved mainly through voiceover from Frame herself. Though such voiceover can often be mishandled, here it is used well. The voiceover does not spoonfeed us plot elements, but rather it provides support and deeper understanding for the images we see on screen.

Though we may initially judge Frame, we soon realize how callous and unfair that inclination is. The film encourages us to see her humanity and her agency. Early on, she struggles to find these herself. But as she grows older, she realizes that she does have something to give to this world that has only shown her coldness and indifference.

She can write.

Though others tell her it is not the smartest pursuit, she continues to write. She even gets published. Her sheer jubilation at the acceptance of her manuscript is incredibly moving. She has finally been accepted. She finally feels worth.

An Angel at My Table

I must also give credit to the cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. There are many artistic shots that find Frame alone in large spaces, just as there are equally-impressive shots that evoke her loneliness in confined spaces as well. No matter where she is, she feels alone.

That is, until she begins to travel. On one trip to Spain, she meets someone she never would have foreseen – a lover. In voiceover, Frame tells us that she sees herself as having the sexuality of a block of wood. But she begins to explore love with this traveling student, at the expense of her writing.

Again, I do not think this is a choice we are meant to judge. Frame has gone her whole life being unloved by the outside world. Shouldn’t she be allowed to explore this one, meaningful relationship? But the student travelling over summer must soon travel back for fall classes, and Janet is left to consider the transcience of it all.

I must say, this is a long film. There were sections with which I did not connect emotionally. But then there were sections that moved me deeply. And to me, that’s the point. Janet felt unable to connect emotionally, until she begin writing. For her, there were long periods of disconnect with small spurts of splendor.

We must investigate how we might navigate such a life ourselves. And who are we kidding – are we that much different than Janet? Though we may not have the fuzzy hair that simply cannot be controlled, don’t we all know what it is like to be unable to communicate with those around us? Though we may not all shy away from social gatherings, don’t we all know what it’s like to be lonely? Though we may not all be published authors, don’t we all know the rapturous joy of our work being appreciated?

An Angel at My Table

I appreciate when any work of art encourages me to go back into history and learn about the work of another artist. I did this with the real-life Janet Frame, and it cemented my admiration for her. To see the film is one thing, but to read about her life is just another encouragement for empathy. Frame was deemed to be a schizophrenic and, thus, unfit for society until she was awarded a prize for her writing.

Until the prize was awarded, she had been scheduled for a lobotomy. They cancelled it once the prize was announced. Frame’s humanity – different as it may have seemed – was not enough for them. They needed the outside acclaim. May we all decide that we will see others as human without requiring the outside acclaim.

This film is one I’m still not sure quite what to do with. But I feel somehow changed for having seen it. It is a different film than most, but as it so artfully shows, different is not something to be judged. Rather it is to be appreciated.

I appreciate this film, and I will always be glad for having seen it.

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