what i watched last week
on depression, suicide, and medication

by request: an angel at my table (jane campion, 1990)

Jeff Pike requested this one, which was also on my long-term list, since it’s #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films.

This is the true story of New Zealand writer Janet Frame, who wrote an autobiographical trilogy that Jane Campion filmed as a three-part television mini-series, which then became An Angel at My Table. (It’s unclear to me whether the film version is just the series, edited together, or if some changes were made.) Frame has a fascinating tale to tell: shy and talented, and perhaps prone to depression, she was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and spent eight years in a psychiatric hospital, where she received a couple of hundred shock treatments. She was scheduled for a lobotomy when her first book, a collection of short stories, won an important literary prize. The lobotomy was cancelled, and her writing career began.

Campion tells this story in a straightforward manner. The scenes in the asylum are extremely disturbing, and like the entire movie, are presented as Janet experiences them. The series of actresses who play Frame (Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and Kerry Fox) do an excellent job of giving us a shy, withdrawn person (difficult to portray on the screen) while always giving a sense of the artist inside the shyness. (It also helps that the three, in their makeup and hairstyles, look so much alike it’s not easy to tell when one leaves off and another begins.) Fox, the only one of the three who continued with an acting career, is stunning, especially when something brings her joy. Frame experiences enough misery that the joyful moments are heartwarming in a good way.

Yet Campion hasn’t given us a feel-good movie. Yes, it’s nice that Frame found herself through her writing, and her success feels well-earned in the film. But Campion never stoops to a mere “heroine overcoming great odds” boilerplate, making An Angel at My Table much better than the norm.

The film jumps too quickly at times through important events in Frame’s life. I imagine if you knew her story in advance, this wouldn’t be a problem, but as is, the film could be longer, even though it’s already 2 1/2 hours long. There is also a matter-of-fact feel to some of Frame’s achievements. Little is made of her published works, beyond serving to move the story along, obviously in the near-lobotomy scene, but throughout … at one point, she is asked to autograph some books and I thought, she wrote a book already? In the past, I’ve tended to respect Campion’s work more than I liked it (and in the case of In the Cut, I didn’t care for it at all). Of the ones I’ve now seen, I’d say An Angel at My Table is the best Campion film. 8/10.