Director Jane Campion initially conceived of her adaptation of poet/novelist Janet Frame’s series of autobiographies as a TV miniseries. Only into production did the New Zealand Film Commission suggest a theatrical release, apparently because the biopic is the singular genre that looks, feels, and acts like episodic television and still plays nominally well in movie theaters. An Angel at My Table, named from the volume of Frame’s memoirs that recounts her elongated residence in a psychiatric ward, is no doubt a heartfelt tribute to a soft-spoken, melancholic writer from a director who claims to cherish her work as being very important in her own development. And though it’s shackled to that unyielding, difficult narrative structure of most biopics, this quality also works to the film’s benefit as Frame’s life is unspooled with the same sort of scenes-as-brushstrokes impressionism of Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon.
But whereas Chihwaseon becomes increasingly restless and elliptical as it goes on, culminating in one of the most poetic representations of an artist stepping into legend (via a kiln), An Angel at My Table begins at the height of Campion’s mottled isolationist whimsy—showing a baby Janet covering her face trying to deflect her approaching mother’s bosom, and then a credit card commercial panorama of the knobby-kneed pre-teen Forth against the rolling New Zealand landscape—and settles into the mundane chapter-and-book processional as it continues. Janet goes through her early childhood as an outcast at school. She’s from a poor family, has poor hygiene (later in her teens, she let her teeth rot brown), and when she offers her entire class chewing gum bought with money she stole from her father’s woolen pocket, her teacher reveals her thievery to the class who then sneers. To say nothing of the untamable patch of ginger cotton growing from her scalp, which remains a constant in her life as she moves from the university to the asylum to a successful writing career complete with grants to travel to Paris and Spain. Spanning over three decades, Frame is portrayed seamlessly by three different actresses (in order of age: Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and, playing the adult Frame, Kerry Fox) whose remarkable resemblance to each other extends beyond their appearance and mannerisms. They pass the psychological baton and collectively sculpt a portrait of growth.
Campion’s knack for solitary yet paradoxically epic scope nibbles off Laura Jones’s bite-sized scene-sketches of loneliness and makes entire meals of them, swallowing cast and location up alike in an effort to centralize the three actresses playing Frame to the point that even the most major supporting characters (her older sister Myrtle in the film’s first hour, her American lover in Ibiza in the last) are delegated to the sidelines…which aren’t exactly as prodigious as they might be in a film conceived for the silver screen. In fact, with Frame’s wild crown of fuzz, the preponderance of close-ups turn the rectangular frame into an hourglass, suggesting (however inadvertently) the time she struggles to remember and catalogue in writing her own memoirs as well as the time she lost in a mental institution, the place where she no doubt lost some of those memories enduring no less than 200 odd electroshock treatments. Campion’s film comes up short, however, in never satisfactorily illustrating the importance or character of Frame’s writing, which, while lauded for its selflessness, can’t survive the director’s tightly honed individualist scrutiny without occasionally lapsing into solipsism.
An Angel at My Table was originally shot in 16mm and then blown up to 35mm for the theatrical release. In any case, this is probably the most astonishing-looking digital transfer of a 16mm source I've seen since Criterion's Brakhage set. The only major defect I could detect was some pixellization on some of the darker blues and blacks. Otherwise it's sharp without being an eyesore, with a surprisingly vibrant variety of hues. Even if the film acts like a miniseries, it doesn't necessarily look like one. Even better is the 5.1 surround mix, with lots of live effects with plenty of space around them. The dialogue sounds a little low, and the digitization of the music score sometimes gives it a glassy harshness, but that could just be because the presentation is so acutely clear.
Just as the film is split into three sections, with three actresses sharing its lead role, so is Criterion's commentary track split into a triptych between director Campion, the director of photography Stuart Dryburgh, and actress Kerry Fox. They were recorded separately, so all the observations come in start-and-stop hiccups, but I suppose that it would be a bit much to expect each one to handle the entire 158-minute duration by themselves, though I'd lay money on Campion being the most likely of the three. Their comments fall on the film-school side of the stuffy-gossipy continuum, usually talking about the logistics and economics of shooting a film commissioned by the government (admittedly a pretty foreign concept to most people in DVD Region 1), but all three are intelligent and well-spoken. Even more intelligent and well-spoken is Janet Frame herself, presented in a nearly half-hour long radio chat from the early 1980s. She sounds nowhere near as painfully shy as she's portrayed in the film. There's a short, fluffy "making of" featurette, a still gallery, and a theatrical trailer on the disc. And the insert booklet comes with a critical essay by Amy Taubin (who reads strangely dispassionate) and three excerpts from Frame's autobiographies.
Undoubtedly careful, tasteful filmmaking. But, then again, Janet Frame's writing could also be described as careful and tasteful.