An Angel at My Table (1990)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Biopic [feature], Feminist Film, Psychological Drama  |   Release Date - May 19, 1991 (USA)  |   Run Time - 157 min.  |   Countries - Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Michael Hastings

Originally commissioned as a miniseries for New Zealand television, Jane Campion's sophomore directorial effort is a sprawling adaptation of the memoirs of author and poet Janet Frame, whose budding talents as a young writer were squelched by her community's -- and at times, even her own -- conviction that she be institutionalized. The film is as much a chronicle of one woman's changing emotional landscape as it is an expose of the sordid conditions of the country's psychiatric hospitals of the '50s, where Frame was left to languish until her writings attracted the attention of influential writers and editors. The perennially reliable character actress Kerry Fox established herself in the role of the adult Frame, and she delivers delicate, carefully modulated emotion beneath Frame's trademark shock of red hair. The film bears more than a passing resemblance to later "institutionalized genius" pictures (most notably 1996's Shine), but Campion avoids letting her subject become a mere martyr; there are incidents in which Frame exercises bad judgement, and her transition to the life of a successful, independent woman is a shaky, apprehensive one. As is common in Campion's films, however, the director seems to be outlining a larger social pathology behind her heroine's insecurity and pathos. Angel marked the beginning of the director's kinetic, distinctive work with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, who would also shoot The Piano and Portrait of a Lady.