Why do we find such romance in films about the young discovering their passions? Is it because only the young are capable of being passionate, or that such pleasures are most intense when they are still new? Probably not. Perhaps the reason we want the next generation to discover what the love and what they’re capable of is because it can provide them with a shelter.
As they go through those deeply unsettling years, so much in life becomes a source of confusion. In the face of that, any strength in the face of the uncertainty is something to be celebrated.
AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE is the Jane Campion film based on the memoirs of Kiwi author Janet Frame. Told in three chapters, the film tells the story of the mild poverty she grew up in at her country home with her large family. It then moves on to explore both teenage Janet’s growing talent as a writer, and the tragedy of her being committed to a sanitarium when there is nothing actually wrong with her.
After her works are published, a young adult Janet is able to get out of the madhouse, and move off to Europe to seek true acceptance and find better artistic opportunities.
This is a film that feels authentic in ways that many films of its era do not. Is it because it had Frame’s writings to draw from? Is it because it had Campion steering the ship? Perhaps both? Such storytelling tandems were rare in 1990…even now, we aren’t really drowning in them.
Pity, since I’d argue the world needs more angels at its table.
What’s always wonderful about a film like this is the way it underlines the similarities in all teenagers. No matter whether they are rich or poor, from big cities or small towns, teenagers always play at emulating grown-ups. They take on personas, try on their clothes, use bigger words, and strike the poses they have come to know from those in authority.
It starts early, and it often goes on longer than we intend it…but all of us are generally guilty of “playing grown-up” while we’re young. What might we do instead if someone pointed out that when we’re grown-up, we’ll take any opportunity we can to act like immature teenagers and shrug-off responsibilities?
To a young woman like Janet, it might not matter. Despite what people around her say, we look at her and see so damned much strength of character, she was pretty much “a grown-up” at age 13. Her ginger afro makes her impossible to miss, and while many around her want to tame it, we can see in an instant that it’s a key piece of what makes Janet ‘Janet’.
It’s what allows her to beam with quiet pride and repeat compliments about her writing, and likewise what makes us care about her so much that we fear for her the second she sets foot in that asylum.
The same way the colour of her hair stands out against the green rolling hills around her, so too does her self-consciousness endear her to us when surrounded by such wannabe’s
Time and again, we watch the world around Janet try to hammer the square peg she is into the round hole. At its most benign, it’s offers to send her to someone about her teeth or her hair (including one trip that turns into the worst bait-and-switch imaginable). At its worst, it involves her own family and mentors looking at her and saying she’s “not right” – and in the name of bettering herself, put Janet in harm’s way.
In this way, the story that was first brought to life twenty-six years ago (and written eight years prior to that) could not be more relevant.
Look at any male talent that an industry wants to develop; writers, actors, government, etc. Usually, at worst, a PR rep or stylist will get them dressing better. Women like Janet though need to be completely made-over. Where other women her age glide across a ballroom, Janet lumbers. There’s not a damned thing wrong with that of course, especially not when she does do backed up by her considerable talent.
But somebody somewhere even suggests that more success will come just by changing one thing…and the damage is done. That one thing can be honed and perfected, but it will always be in the back of the talent’s mind…and by then the damage is done.
But speaking of that, the film has the audacity to explore the world of psychiatric help. In a time where therapy and medicinal solutions were on the rise, we looked back to a previous time when psychiatric solutions were borderline medieval. This goes well beyond “straighten your hair” or “show some leg”, and drifts into a very damaging place where far too many people in our past found themselves.
Just underlining how barbaric such actions were would make this film deeply affecting; that it is spun into an adult who cannot get help because there was never anything wrong with her is heartbreaking…and cautionary.
What’s amusing is that this film came to me just a few days after I watched another coming-of-age film about young women, this one from the early 90’s. Where that one was cliché and toothless, this film is viciously honest and ultimately hopeful. I believe it’s worthwhile celebrating films about young women coming-of-age (since there aren’t nearly as many as there ought to be), but not at the expense of enduring a flimsy film.
What’s amazing is that even after getting dragged through the muck the way AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE drags us, we still come away from this film – every chapter of it – feeling hopeful. Perhaps it’s because it’s always difficult to look at the expressive eyes and broad shoulders of Kerry Fox and not feel optimistic for her. Or perhaps it’s because she is able to write her way out of her toughest circumstances…whether that’s simply life in rural New Zealand or even when her success springs her from the sanitarium.
Words are her ticket out and her ticket up, and for anyone who’s ever strung three words together – that’s deeply moving and highly encouraging.
Many have said over the last few years that television is doing things that film either cannot do, or is uninterested in doing anymore. As if to underline the switch, we see filmmakers like Stephen Soderbergh, Baz Luhrmann, and even Jane Campion herself working in the medium. The blurring of lines between film and television is what allows projects like Beyonce’s “Lemonade” or ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” to prop-up what has otherwise been a down year in cinemas.
To this end, Campion was ahead of the curve. She looked at what some influential filmmakers had done, and used the storytelling technique to focus on an unlikely heroine. To this day, a character like Janet is usually the sidekick in a story like this – not the shining star at the centre of its universe. While the film is still able to be soaked-up in one epic sit, one easily fathom how engaging it would have been to check-in on her from week-to-week and anticipate her visits…
…depressing as they may be.
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for August so far…
Rebecca Sharp watched WALTZ WITH BASHIR
Courtney watched LA STRADA
Erin watched THE WAGES OF FEAR
Keisha watched IKIRU
Coog watched CHINATOWN
Wendell watched BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
Jay Cluitt watched LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
Erin watched THE WAGES OF FEAR
Sean Kelly watched THE FLY (1958)
Kristina watched L’ATALANTE
Kevin watched THE WILD BUNCH
Steven watched A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME