R, 158 min, 1990

Director: Jane Campion
Writers: Janet Frame (autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City), Laura Jones
Stars: Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson

Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table is a magical, epic masterpiece. This is an absorbing, sweeping, moving, ultimately inspiring experience to behold, the tale of an ordinary person who lived through an astonishing series of circumstances, and overcame them.

Janet Frame (played at three ages by Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh and Karen Ferguss) was a dreamy, chubby, curly-haired redheaded girl who grew up in poverty in New Zealand on the precipice of World War II. Living in the lush green countryside, Janet was one of four children, raised by a loving mother and a father who works for the railroad (Iris Churn and K.J. Wilson).

Surviving a difficult childhood, Frame attended college and was on track to becoming a teacher. Unfortunately, Janet was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. She was put in a psychiatric ward for 8 years, where she was given 200 treatments of electroshock. Undissuaded, Janet wrote two novels while there, and went on to become a published author; she would go on to write some 20 books, as well as poetry, plays, short stories and three autobiographies (which inspired this film).

The film, directed by Jane Campion (Sweetie) from a screenplay by Laura Jones, tells the story of this remarkable woman from childhood, into her 30s; the film is 158 minutes long, and doesn’t drag even the slightest bit. I was enraptured, amused, saddened, moved and absorbed by its simple but indescribably fascinating attention to detail; it is a powerful experience.

Campion has found the ideal actresses to play this amazing woman. From the rather rotund young girl that Janet begins as, to the lovely young woman she grows up to be, these are three performances to be cherished.

The film is visually lovely to boot, photographed in glorious color by Stuart Dryburgh. Campion and her writer could’ve fallen into the trap of any number of film biopics, pumping up the story with false melodrama or plot devices, but they don’t. Rather, they simply give us the story of a writer’s life. Indeed, it may be the best film about the life of a writer ever made. It’s certainly one of the year’s very best films.

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