Tackling the often-troublesome act of linking ‘the artist’ with unstable mental health is not a unique notion in art or life, but Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table tries to discern the ‘madness’ from the artist when the artist may not be ‘mad’ at all; merely awkward and anxious and at times very, very misunderstood. Adopting the autobiographical writings of New Zealand novelist and poet Janet Frame, Campion brings a feminine spirit to the screen, exploring the anguish and the myriad of subtleties of a young girl’s transition to maturity and honest creativity, a path that often borders on insanity and paralysis for many of us at one point or another. It is this duality that produces a heartbreaking, honest, while also at times bleakly comical, depiction of one of New Zealand’s most celebrated artists.
Initially broadcast on New Zealand television as a three-part miniseries in 1990, we are shown Janet at three different stages of her development – as gifted but wayward child, as shy and painfully uncomfortable-in-her-own-skin young adult, and as grown woman who survives the horrors of eight years of incarceration in a psychiatric institution where she underwent a seemingly endless series of shock therapy treatments – to emerge as a successful writer, a world traveller and a woman who has reclaimed her sexuality and her independence. At successive ages Janet is played by three actresses (Karen Fergusson, Alexia Keogh, and Kerry Fox) and it is their united achievement to show the genius growing within the child, and the child flourishing inside the grown woman.
Campion can make even the most serene landscape appear as a haunted, dark space that seems at once both alien and familiar. “This is the story of my childhood,” an adult Janet narrates over the film’s opening sequence as we see a baby lying in the grass with her mother towering over her like a gentle giant. While no harm is done, there is a palpable threat in the air, an anticipation of evil. Campion crafts landscapes that are eerily beautiful – making Janet’s torturous experience a sobering experience. Perhaps, because despite the insurmountable cruelty that Janet experiences throughout her life, the true horrors are hidden in the mundanity of the world around her, and the treatment she receives from ‘well-meaning’ others.
Born in 1924 in Dunedin, a small seaside town in southern New Zealand, Janet Frame was one of five children in a poor, happy, rough-around-the-edges family. Campion shows their poverty without romanticizing it. Each hardship the family faces (for example, the death of two daughters or the epileptic fits suffered by a son) adds tension but also reveals abiding love in each of the relationships within it. With her red hair and round freckled face, the young Janet presents an almost comical appearance. The child is odd, loving and vulnerable, and as Janet grows, so too does her awkwardness. Yet this first part of the film is less a recounting of childhood terrors than an essay in the progress of the imagination.
Her desire to be a sensitive, likable individual is first exhibited when Janet attempts to win peer approval by stealing money from her father for gum which she distributes to her classmates. But her eagerness to please leads inevitably to her exposure and shaming by an unsympathetic teacher – the first in a series of ruthless authority figures in Janet’s life who presume to possess the power of knowing better than she how to live it. Several scenes later Janet writes her first poem – ignoring another authority, her sister Myrtle (Melina Berneker), on the conventions of poetry – to win approval and acceptance with the children in her class as they joyfully complete the rhyming couplets she is experimenting with. At this early stage her knack with words is established as a gift and a means of social reconciliation.
Progressing from Part One to Part Two, we watch as Janet struggles with her physical wellbeing and integrity. Much like any other growing girl, she tries out faces in the mirror, noticing the first blood between her legs and fearing that it will show or smell, and fighting the frizziness of her hair and the colour of her teeth. While Janet’s talent is acknowledged amongst her family and peers, a schizophrenia misdiagnosis leaves her surrounded by well-meaning people who fixate on the notion that this “gradual deterioration of mind with no cure” demands they pacify the writer. At her darkest point (and the darkest part of Campion’s film), we see Janet in a hospital; an institution named ‘Sunnyside’ in a cruel act of irony. The heaviness of this time in Janet’s life is artfully crafted through a series of scenes so bleakly shot that the camera captures no colour from Janet’s naturally vibrant red hair. The only sounds are the discomforting cries from the institutionalised others who surround her. Nurses grapple with people suffering a variety of illnesses as patients rock back and forth on beds, or swing their arms wildly in fear of being constrained. A woman clutching her pillow to her chest stands at the head of her bed trying to get out of the nurses’ reach. There is not an ounce of joy that can be found in this place, where ‘medicine’ refers to electroconvulsive therapy treatments, “each one equivalent in fear to an execution”. Janet’s only solace is her imagination: “I comforted myself with writing.”
Part Three depicts Janet’s redemption from family feuds and hospitalisation through a trip to Europe on a writing grant. With the tension of her early years resolved, the film loosens its focus on growth, turning largely picturesque at times: Janet in Montmartre; Janet typing by candlelight; or Janet staring out a window looking like a painting come to life. Images like this bring to mind Campion’s art school background: her visuals often closer to paintings or photographs than to other films. It becomes a mode of narration that is untraditional; it is not structured around main events or the actions of a hero, but rather a perpetual flow of colours, words, and feelings. While softening the film it does not detract from the harsh, confronting realm that Campion has created for Janet as by this time the film has established her as a personality too complex ever to be easily resigned with herself or the world.
The making of Janet the artist is intimately connected with the development of Janet the maturing human being. When the film does suggest a painful existence for the inwardly-focused, isolated artist within society, it is not a far stretch from the brutal norms expected of all of us in some way; fears of humiliation, cruelty and death are common to all. An Angel at My Table is remarkable for its attention to detail, for its pure, striking and resonant images, and for its appreciation of human idiosyncrasies.
An Angel at My Table (1990 Australia/New Zealand/UK 158 minutes)
Prod Co: ABC/Television New Zealand/Channel 4 Prod: Bridget Ikin Dir: Jane Campion Scr: Laura Jones, based on the memoirs, To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame Phot: Stuart Dryburgh Ed: Veronika Jenet Mus: Don McGlashan
Cast: Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson