Thursday, January 24, 2013

An Angel at My Table




Based on the three autobiographies of Jane Frame in To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City, An Angel at My Table is the story about the life of New Zealand author Jane Frame in three parts of her life from childhood to adulthood. Directed by Jane Campion and screenplay by Laura Jones, the film explores the life of the author through her trials and tribulation in this unconventional bio-pic as she’s played in three different ages by Karen Fergusson, Alexia Keogh, and Kerry Fox. The result is a fascinating yet engrossing film from Jane Campion.

The film is a three-part story about the life of Janet Frame from childhood to adulthood as each chapter is named after her three autobiographies. Throughout the entirety of the film, Frame is shown in very different periods of time as she encounters all sorts of things such as tragedy, alienation, low self-esteem, craziness, love, success, and eventually finding herself. It’s a film that doesn’t play to the conventions of a bio-pic as it explores Frame’s life where she goes through a lot including an eight-year stay at a mental hospital where she endured shock treatments. Eventually, all of the things she would experience in her life she would put into her work as it would make her one of New Zealand’s most celebrated authors.

Laura Jones’ screenplay definitely does have a traditional structure yet it doesn’t play into any kind of conventions. The first act named after the first book To the Is-Land is about Frame’s life as a child (Karen Fergusson) and then a teenager (Alexia Keogh), and later as an adult (Kerry Fox) where she lives in a small town in New Zealand with her family that included three other sisters and a brother as she’s the middle child. Notably as Frame deals with being an oddball in this small town where her most distinctive feature is her red hair. As an adolescent, Frame would deal with her first brush with alienation as well as discovering the world of poetry that would eventually lead to her become a writer. As a teenager, Frame would not only deal with her first encounter with death but also moments that would impact her life as a woman and a writer.

By the time she becomes an adult, she gets an opportunity to become a teacher as she goes through a training period at the Dunedin College of Education. In this act named after second book, Frame wouldn’t just experience alienation in a much bigger way as she becomes a far more introverted person. She also endures uncertainty as she becomes confused about what she wants to do with her life that would eventually have her be institutionalized for eight years at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum where she would endure all sorts of treatments including shock treatment while being diagnosed as schizophrenic. Another with more encounters with death, she would also get her first taste of success as well as a period to develop herself as a writer.

The third act would have Frame leave New Zealand for Europe where she does endure a bit of culture shock but it would prove to be fruitful as she finds love in Spain but would return to Britain feeling more unsure of herself as she would find revelations about her diagnosis and more. Still, she is drawn to her homeland where she does return home due to another death yet she returns a more confident woman. While it’s a story that covers Frame’s life from the 1920s to the late 1950s, Jones manages to find ways to ensure a sense of realism while often having some voiceover narration from the adult Frame that comes from her novels reveal a lot into what she was feeling at the time without explaining too much.

Jane Campion’s direction is truly evocative in the way she presents the film that is about the life of this unique woman. Notably as she creates a lot of unique framing devices to tell the story where a lot of it is shot on location in New Zealand where it’s a world that is unlike anywhere else. Campion creates images that are just captivating to watch such as a young Frame sitting on a hill with the blue sky as a backdrop. The use of crane shots to display the seas and cliffs of the countryside along with other stylistic shots to create these images that can be described as poetic. Notably a tracking shot in which Frame walks out of a classroom and through the hallway where she starts to have an emotional/mental breakdown.

While a lot of the scenes in the New Zealand countryside are loose and wide-open as well as some of the locations in Paris and Spain. The scenes in the cities including London are much tighter in its presentation. Notably in the way it represents Frame’s troubled state of mind as she becomes more insecure and more alienated by her surroundings. The scenes at the hospital are just as startling for the way Campion presents those scenes without really playing into clich├ęs as the lobotomy scenes are just chilling to watch. Campion shifts things around for the presentation of many scenes as definitely creates something that is intimate but also grand in the way she showcases Frame’s life. Overall, Campion creates a truly magnificent yet powerful film about the life of Janet Frame.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh does great work with the film‘s cinematography from the very colorful look of the New Zealand and Spanish landscapes to the more stylistic look of the scenes in the hospital with its emphasis on blue colors to capture Frame‘s tense mood. Editor Veronika Haeussler does amazing work with the editing by creating some effective jump-cuts to play up Frame‘s emotions as well as some of the film‘s dramatic moments. Production designer Grant Major and co-art director Jackie Gilmore do fantastic work with the sets from the look of the Frame household in the New Zealand countryside to the chaos that is the Seacliff asylum.

Costume designer Glenys Jackson does wonderful work with the costumes to display the growing development of Janet Frame from her frumpy look early on to someone more confident in her look. The sound work of John Dennison and Tony Vaccher is terrific for the way it plays to the atmosphere of the Seacliff asylum as well as some intimate moments in scenes involving the countryside. The film’s music by Don McGlashan is brilliant for its intoxicating score that features a mix of playful woodwind pieces, low-key piano, and folk-based cuts while the soundtrack is a mixture of classical music and pop songs of the 1950s.

The casting of Diana Rowan is incredible for the rich ensemble that is created for this film. Notable small roles include Carla Hedgeman and Caroline Somerville as Janet’s friend Poppy in different ages, Natalie Ellis as Janet’s superficial aunt Isy, Eddie Hegan as her ailing uncle George, Fiona Kay as family friend Marguerite, Harry Lavington as the Seacliff psychologist, and Gerald Bryan as Dr. Cawley. In the roles of Frame’s family, there’s terrific performances from Kevin J. Wilson and Iris Chum as her parents. In the roles of her epilepsy-stricken brother Bruddie, there’s Mark Morrison, Christopher Lawrence, and Andrew Robertt in the different ages while Melina Bernecker is wonderful as the eldest Frame child in Myrtle.

For the role of Frame’s younger sister Isabel, there’s Katherine Murray-Cowper, Samantha Townsley, and Glynis Angell. While in the roles of the youngest sister June, there’s Sarah Llewellyn, Susan McGregor, and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy as both of them are terrific. Great supporting roles include Martyn Sanderson as Frank Sargerson who would become a mentor for Frame while William Brandt is superb as the American professor Bernhard who Frame would have an affair with in Spain. Karen Fergusson is amazing as the adolescent Janet who deals with her oddball personality while Alexia Keogh is excellent as the teenage Janet who deals with death and her own insecurities.

Finally, there’s Kerry Fox in an outstanding performance as the adult Janet Frame. Fox’s performance is definitely eerie to watch in the way she portrays a young woman unsure of what to do with her life as she finds herself lost and troubled. Notably in those scenes in the hospital where she wanders around while playing up the sense of childlike moments that Frame has when things become too complicated for her. It’s really a performance for the ages as Fox just goes all out for that role.

An Angel at My Table is an extraordinary film from Jane Campion that features a radiant performance from Kerry Fox. The film is definitely one of the most intense yet ethereal portraits of a woman that tries to find herself against unusual forces while not playing to the conventions of a bio-pic. Even as it stands as one of Campion’s defining works of her career as well as introducing the world to the world of Janet Frame. In the end, An Angel at My Table is a triumphant film from Jane Campion.

Jane Campion Films: Sweetie - The Piano - The Portrait of a Lady - Holy Smokes! - In the Cut - Bright Star - Top of the Lake (TV miniseries) - The Auteurs #25: Jane Campion

© thevoid99 2013

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