An Angel At My Table (1990)

An Angel At My Table (1990)

A profoundly moving and compassionate biopic that does its incredible subject justice



Australia, New Zealand Australia UK USA
English, Spanish
Alexia Keogh, Alison Bruce, Andrew Robertt
158 min


A subject-director match made in heaven.

What it's about

Three chapters in the heartbreaking yet hopeful life of writer Janet Frame.

The take

Although it opens on Janet Frame’s first steps as a baby, this Jane Campion-directed biopic of the celebrated New Zealand writer doesn’t take an exhaustive approach to its subject’s life. We frequently only learn of milestones — the many awards she won, the death of her mother — later on and in passing. In a beautiful gesture that feels like a tiny righting of the many wrongs done to Janet, it’s her perspective that guides the film. 

That embedded approach also makes the emotions that come with her heartbreaking yet uplifting story more profound. And there is much heartbreak here: alongside the several tragic losses Janet experienced as a child, she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic as a young woman and spent eight harrowing years in psychiatric hospitals. Throughout all of this, she wrote fiction and poetry, work that saved her life in more ways than one: as well as being a rare constant source of joy, it won her a literary prize just days before she was scheduled for a lobotomy, prompting her doctors to reconsider. Neither Campion nor Janet allowed this experience to define her, however, and the film empathetically grants her real moments of joy and choice throughout — making for a deeply sensitive and uplifting watch.

What stands out

Originally a three-part TV miniseries, An Angel At My Table is based on a trilogy of memoirs by Frame that cover her childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In each of these segments, Frame is played by a different actress: Alexia Keough, Karen Fergusson, and Kerry Fox, respectively. All three give remarkable, spiritually linked performances that make the miniseries’ repackaging as a movie feel fluid and natural. But by virtue of the material, it’s Fox’s turn that lingers most in the memory, because her Janet is the one we follow through excruciating social anxiety at university, abject terror in the hospital, self-discovery in Spain, and finally the film’s quietly stunning ending, in which Janet finally finds empowerment and freedom of her own.


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