Angel at My Table, An

Director: Jane Campion
Year Released: 1990
Rating: 3.0

Endearing portrait of the writer as a lost introvert, divided into three parts: her childhood, her stay in a mental asylum and her eventual critical success. Most people - including myself - have never heard of Janet Frame, who is considered the best writer in New Zealand right now (it's a shame, since writers are only as good as their notoriety and their last book). Campion's film of autobiography, which manages to be intriguing and special without resorting to sympathy-attracting sadness, accurately captures her bleak days, from poverty to insanity to isolation to social discomfort - and provides an adequate nod to the notion that all great art is a product of torment and soul searching. Young Frame was a chubby nerd, who came from a large family, slept in the same bed as the rest of her sisters, and sought acceptance by her peers. Older Janet never quite overcomes her insecurities, but winds up channeling them into her writing, which she has done since she was little. This material could have easily turned into the weepy-weepies, with Campion pulling the strings, but she's extremely cautious with the material, and keeps us at just the right distance. The visual scheme is muddy - was it shot in 16mm or video? - but, keeping with her (perhaps unequaled) cinematic sensibility always feels appropriate. The last act (part three) didn't quite grab me the way the first two did, and caused the picture to sag some until it just, well, stops, but there are some scenes in there that are splendid, including her trip overseas where she falls in love for the first time. After the asylum, she deserved that.