Jane Campion is a rarity, not simply because she is a world-class female director, but because she has devoted her career to exploring female subjectivity: all of her feature films and most of her early short films are constructed around female experience, female heroes, and female points of view. The New Zealand director arrived on the international stage in 1986, when she presented several short films and her first feature, Two Friends, at the Cannes Film Festival; one of the shorts won the grand prize. To date, she has made seven features, and although her heroines have enormous variety—the symbiotically attached lower-middle-class sisters of Sweetie, one of them playing the id to the other’s superego; the beautiful, impetuous Isabelle (Nicole Kidman), depicted, from beginning to end in Portrait of a Lady, Campion’s adaptation of Henry James’s novel, as a hunted animal; Frannie (Meg Ryan), the New York City college teacher in the controversial In the Cut, who nearly comes to grief because she distrusts and second-guesses her sexual desires—they share an awareness that their personal experience of the world is out of sync with social codes and norms and with the expectations of others. “I think of my heroines as going into the underworld in a struggle to make sense of their lives,” Campion told me when I interviewed her in 2003, just before In the Cut’s release. “I think the real danger is in playing safe and avoiding the truth of your imagination in your art and in your life.”
Campion was speaking mostly about Frannie, the New York sophisticate, but her words suggest why she was drawn to Janet Frame, a fellow New Zealander, whose three-part autobiography is the basis of An Angel at My Table. In interviews, Campion has described the lasting impression made on her by Frame’s novels, which she read when she was about thirteen. She was moved by their sadness and by particularly traumatic incidents, such as the death of the sister who falls onto a pile of burning trash in Owls Do Cry. Campion’s close and complicated relationship with her own sister has found its way into several of her films, and it is likely that the shocking, somewhat grotesque death of the schizophrenic sister in Sweetie can be traced back to that early encounter with Frame’s fiction. Fifteen years later, when Campion was attending film school, she read Frame’s autobiography (one volume of which is titled An Angel at My Table). Having heard rumors that Frame was mad and locked away in an asylum, she was surprised at how much the childhood Frame wrote about resembled her own and how perfectly normal the writer seemed to be. At that point, Campion had only made one or two shorts, but she knew immediately that she wanted to make a film based on Frame’s autobiography, and that the proper venue for the material was television. The kind of television experience Campion must have had in mind is the intimate one of watching a movie alone, which can produce a sense of solitude akin to that of getting lost in a book. It was only in the solitude of reading and writing, or of being alone in nature, that Frame, who was intensely shy, found pleasure in life.
An Angel at My Table was indeed produced as a television miniseries but then jumped to theatrical distribution, despite the director’s worry that its straightforward visual style, conceived mostly in close-ups and medium shots appropriate to the square television screen, would be too simple to register when projected for larger audiences. Only the opening sequences of the film—the haunting shots of Janet, as an infant, lying in the grass while her mother swoops above her like a giant bat, followed by Janet, as a young child, all alone on a country road, toddling determinedly toward the camera and then abruptly turning and running away—bind image to interiority in the way we’ve come to expect of a Campion film. An Angel at My Table is an anomaly within her oeuvre in this respect, and it is also the only film she has made based entirely on the life of an actual person. Perhaps she found it inappropriate to impose on Frame’s life story the kind of visual style she uses to express the turbulent inner life of characters that spring from her own imagination (the skewed camera angles of Sweetie or the slightly distorted, variable-speed moving camera images of In the Cut). One could also view the pared-down film language of An Angel at My Table as an expressive choice. By keeping Janet in the center of almost every shot, Campion suggests that, despite the difficulties her heroine experiences in her social relationships and her sense of not fitting any of the institutional roles prescribed for her, she has a remarkably strong sense of self, which will eventually become manifest in her writing. It is as if she were looking at the world through an open window deep within her. What’s striking about Frame’s writing is how direct and personal it is and also how utterly lacking in narcissism. The modesty of Frame’s style demanded an act of self-effacement on the part of the filmmaker, who brilliantly channeled her onto the screen.
An Angel at My Table is also unique among Campion’s films in that it is the only one in which her heroine is an artist, finding her vocation, and thus has obvious connections to the director’s own story. The screenplay, by frequent Campion collaborator Laura Jones, is completely linear in its structure, moving straight ahead from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. But it is also extremely elliptical, and the abruptness with which individual scenes begin and end serves to emphasize the memory aspect of all autobiography, and paradoxically to give the film its dynamics and energy. The three actresses who play Frame are exceptional, and their performances are so perfectly melded that they give the impression of being one person. Alexia Keogh plays Janet as a child; Karen Fergusson plays her as a teenager; and Kerry Fox, in her film debut, plays her in late adolescence and early adulthood. Fox is on-screen in almost every shot of the second half of the film, and the emotional range and subtlety she brings to her work is astonishing—especially given that Frame, with her discordant combination of intelligence, courage, and extreme shyness, is a difficult character for any actor to play.
For Frame, writing was literally her salvation. She was one of the middle children of a large, relatively poor rural family, and her somewhat odd physical appearance—she had flaming red, unruly hair and a head that seemed too big for her stubby, awkward body—and literary aspirations marked her early as an outsider. When she was away from home for the first time, to attend teacher’s college, her shyness and anxiety grew to the point where, fearing she was suicidal, the school advised her parents to commit her. She was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and received two hundred electroshock treatments in her eight years of institutionalization. It was her writing that gave doctors second thoughts about whether she belonged in a hospital, and she was released just in the nick of time, having been short-listed for a lobotomy.
If this sounds like a grim tale, in certain ways it is, particularly the years in the madhouse, which Campion depicts in brutal but mercifully brief scenes. But Frame’s struggle to see the world with her own eyes, her longing for beauty in nature and in art, her refusal of sentimentality and self-pity, her clear-eyed appraisal of herself and of others, and, above all, her marvelous intelligence are not only inspiring, they add up to someone who’s immensely lovable and lovely to watch on the screen. When, toward the end of the film, Frame, who’s living alone on a writer’s grant in Spain, has her first affair—with an aspiring, laughably untalented American poet—we want to warn her, “Don’t do it. He’s not worthy of you, and he’s going to hurt you.” Which, of course, he does. But we’re also glad, as we expect she is, that she experienced, at least once, how the body is transformed by desire and its satisfaction. And when he comes to say good-bye, she refuses to open the door. Instead, she sits down at her typewriter, and the look on her face is that of someone who knows that words are a refuge and a triumph, and that the artist’s imagination can transcend the anxiety and grief of finding oneself, again and again, alone in the world.
It is in fact a surprisingly optimistic and decisive conclusion for Campion. Her other heroines emerge from their difficult, dangerous journeys with a surer sense of self, but they are left ambivalent about where to go next in their lives, how to find their place—leaving the viewer, in turn, with a sense of unease. Janet, on the other hand, has discovered her vocation, and, in her little camper, parked near the house where her remaining family lives, she is as fully at home as anyone could hope to be.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor for Film Comment and Sight & Sound. She also writes for Artforum and has an online column for Film Comment at www.filmlinc.com. She is the author of the BFI Film Classics volume on Taxi Driver and teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York.