Angel from Down Under

December 17, 2015 § Leave a comment


To this New Englander, New Zealand feels like the bottom of the world, about as far away a place as one can go. So when I recently watched An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion’s 1990 biopic about the writer Janet Frame (1924-2004), I tried to keep my eyes open to the landscape and other revealing aspects of location. There are rolling green hills and scenes with sheep bopping into the frame, and elementary school classrooms with New Zealand flags hanging. There are trains passing over horizons. Frame’s father worked for the railroad, though with six children the family did not have a lot of money.

At two hours and forty-five minutes, the film covers aspects of Frame’s early life in patient detail. Janet is the shy observer, overshadowed by three domineering sisters. The girls must share a bed. She practices such poor hygiene that a school nurse scolds her for having filthy ears. Her older brother suffers from epileptic seizures. In adolescence, she develops a taste for sweets, so much that she and her sister steal prized chocolates from a landlady. Her teeth go to rot.

There are slight moments when the artist with the sensitivity for language emerges (upon which the cleaning of her ears almost works as a metaphor), as when she resists her sister’s suggestion to change a word in a poem for school, one that eventually gets published. Frame’s life has parallels to that of Sylvia Plath, or more accurately, the character of Esther in The Bell Jar: In a rural community with few literary heroes, a dreamy girl who demonstrates creative talent and moments of social anxiety gets recommended by her teachers to the observation of a shrink, psychiatry being a young and perhaps oft-misapplied science at the time. She is hospitalized for schizophrenia and subjected to shock treatments. A lobotomy is scheduled, and it is cancelled only when her first collection of stories wins a major literary award.

Then the film lightens as Frame is given a chance to enjoy success. She develops mentorships at a writers’ colony, then has an affair with a married history professor who dabbles in poetry but is terrible at it; he reads it to her in bed, and for the first time in her life she must hold herself back from saying anything.

Frame’s books aren’t easy to find here in the States, apart from Amazon. She wrote an autobiography in three volumes, the material for which Campion mined for An Angel at My Table. Many critics seem to label Frame a writer of magical realism, particularly for her final novel, The Carpathains (1988). Frame’s popularity among New Zealand writers might be matched only by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), for whom Frame’s mother worked as a housemaid (a fact never broached in the film) and who died the year before Frame was born.


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