An Angel at My Table (1990) from Tuna

An Angel at My Table (1990) was the first feature from New Zealander Jane Campion. Based on the three autobiographies of poet and novelist Janet Frame (To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City), it was intended as a TV mini-series, but simply got too good not to be seen in theaters. Campion was very resistant to the idea of a theatrical release after having been booed at Cannes for an earlier short film, but was finally persuaded to screen it at an Australian festival where it received probably the best reception in the history of that event.

The story, like the autobiography, is told in three parts:

The first is childhood. Frame grew up as a shy overweight girl in a large and impoverished farming family. She was an outsider in school, and lived in the shadow of her beautiful, outgoing sister at home. She escaped into writing at an early age. Her first serious trauma occurs when her older sister dies as a teenager, drowned in the public swimming pool.

The second covers her school days, where she has decided to become a teacher. At university, the administration convinces her parents that she should be committed to a mental institution. In her eight years there, she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and given over 200 electric shock treatments. She was on the short list for a lobotomy when her first book of short stories was not only published, but won a prestigious award. This convinced the doctors not to operate, but rather to rehabilitate her.

In part three, she is introduced to and stays with another author. In this nurturing environment, she writes her first novel. When it is accepted for publication, her companion sends her to Europe to give her more exposure. While in Spain, she meets an American teacher on sabbatical and it is with him that she has her first sexual encounter, beginning an affair that lasts through the summer. She is, of course, devastated when he returns to the states. She seeks psychological help, and that is when she discovers that the earlier schizophrenia diagnosis was misguided, and undergoes therapy which helps her work through the problems caused by her hospitalization and treatment.  She then returns to New Zealand to write.

It was not a simple project, for many reasons. First, they had to be true to the known facts about a very famous living author. Second, the entire first part of the story required child actors to carry the entire narrative. Third, Campion had to resist her natural inclination toward sophisticated artistry. She known for employing non-linear chronology, and for her radical camera and lighting ideas, but she wisely chose a straightforward, unembellished treatment here. In this case, the factual story was eloquent enough on its own, so Campion kept everything simple.

Performances were excellent throughout. I was especially impressed by the work from the children, and by how convincingly the three actresses who played Frame seemed to be the same person. I was also drawn in by the sense of intimacy created by Campion's creative decision to keep the camera height at the level of Frame at each age. Campion specializes in stories about women struggling to find their own way in society, and Frame's real story was a natural, which she was able to flesh out somewhat with episodes from her own childhood in rural New Zealand. Campion did everything right. This is one of the best biographies I have ever seen, and is about someone interesting enough to warrant a biography.

A total joy.



  • Audio commentary featuring director Jane Campion and director of photography Stuart Dryburgh
  • A documentary about the making of An Angel at My Table
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Audio interview with Janet Frame, from 1983
  • Photo gallery
  • A new essay by film critic Amy Taubin and reprinted excerpts from Frame's autobiography


Kerry Fox, as the adult Janet Frame, does full frontal and rear nudity.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Roger Ebert 4/4

  • It won six awards from the New Zealand academy, including a clean sweep of the four most important ones (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography.)

The People Vote ...

  • It grossed a million dollars in the USA
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a B.

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