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An Angel at My Table / The Piano

December 18, 2018


Jane Campion



Kerry Fox

Alexia Keogh

Karen Fergusson

Iris Churn

Kevin J. Wilson









2 Hrs., 38 Mins.


Jane Campion



Holly Hunter

Harvey Keitel

Sam Neill

Anna Paquin

Kerry Walker

Genevieve Lemon









2 Hrs.


handful of days before she was scheduled to have a lobotomy, the writer Janet Frame, who was a patient at the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum at the time, found out that she had won the Hubert Church Memorial Award. The prize, then one of New Zealand’s premier literary honors, was saluting The Lagoon and Other Stories (1951), her first published collection of work. The accolade led Seacliff to cancel the procedure; six years later, after a smattering of appearances in local publications, Frame would, pretty

officially, begin her literary career with the release of her first novel, Owls Do Cry.


Early in life, the director Jane Campion was struck by Frame, who grew to become among New Zealand’s most acclaimed and prolific but misunderstood writers. Campion read Owls Do Cry for the first time in 1968, when she was 14 years old; while studying film at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School in the early 1980s, Campion’s mother sent over a copy of one of Frame’s three autobiographies, To the Is-Land (1982). Campion, who would stay up reading the memoir, sobbing through certain passages, has said that she emotionally connected with Frame, especially in regard to their respective childhoods. The attachment grew so strong that, that 1982, Campion found herself intent on helming a miniseries about Frame’s life, in an effort to help bolster the author’s notoriety.


Campion met Frame that year, both to get to know her and ask for the rights to To the Is-Land. The meeting was cordial but did not come with the immediate greenlighting Campion was hoping for. Frame asked the former to wait until the release of her next two memoirs, wanting the filmmaker to have a comprehensive portrait of her life before dramatization. Campion, in turn, would busy herself by directing a series of shorts, a telefilm, and a feature-length.


Eventually, though, the director would see her thirst to cinematize Frame’s story through: In 1990, just a year after making her bona-fide directorial debut with SweetieAn Angel at My Table premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Reviews were exalting; audiences were so loud in their appreciation of the movie that Campion, in a first-person piece published in The Guardian in 2008, would declare that she never experienced that sort of reaction again.


An Angel at My Table, which uses the triad of Frame autobiographies as its basis, is split up into three sections. In the first, we live in Frame’s middle-class childhood, which was sullied by rebellion and tragedy. (Two of her sisters died, horrifically, in separate drowning incidents.) We move into her adolescence, during which she begins developing a personal style but also begins suffering from depression and social anxiety. Then we traipse into her young adult life and then her ever-evolving, fully fledged adult years, which were first characterized by gainful educational periods, then impaired by a series of stays in psychiatric institutions (the author often was the one checking herself in). During these stretches, she is played, respectively, by Karen Fergusson, Alexia Keough, and Kerry Fox, who, aside from having their ‘dos revamped into a shock of bushy, orange curls, possess physical similarities that complement how wonderfully they, together, delineate convincing transformation.


A biopic as excellent as An Angel at My Table is a rare animal. Recurrent in the standard biographical movie is a feeling of reenactment: Professional achievements tend to be amplified, with personal specifics either romanticized or truncated for the sake of a shorter running time. The abridgment of a long period might amplify a sense of narrative prioritization, mistakenly, and sometimes frustratingly, elevating a person’s story rather than the person.


An Angel at My Table is anomalous in its approach. Its runtime — a monumental 158 minutes — allows it to be leisurely, and fixate on emotional particulars; the screenwriter Laura Jones does not seem as interested in emboldening Frame’s accomplishments as she is in exhibiting what we perceive to be the writer’s core.

We gather that Frame was, essentially, a depressed, outwardly timorous, but brilliant woman who could transform herself into someone exacting when she wrote. The hospital stays, which at one moment climaxed in a schizophrenia misdiagnosis, were nearly detrimental to Frame’s personal growth. It was her writing, it is suggested, that kept her pushing. A lesser movie would attempt to build a cheer-summoning, “feel-good” arc. It could have been idolatrous, or tried to build on the romantic notion of the “tortured artist.” But Campion and Jones strive to portray Frame’s life for what it was: something of a vortex that, in spite of its many triumphs, would never be elementary.


I love the minute details Jones inserts in the script. There is a scene, during the first act, where Frame is writing a poem for class at home, and her older sister tries to change the phrasing of a certain stanza because it doesn’t sound “poetic.” Later, when Frame’s teacher is reading the piece aloud, we discover that the girl didn’t listen to her sibling’s advice — she had faith in her instincts less than a decade into her life. Toward the film’s middle, when Frame discovers that The Lagoon and Other Stories has been published, the fact that there is a hard copy of her work doesn’t much matter after she finds out that there is no photograph of her next to the biographical blurb. During the final part of the film, during which Frame has her first romantic relationship with a sweet but untalented writer, there comes a post-coital beat when her flame reads her one of his poems, and Frame has to pretend to like it. It is an unheard-of moment where Frame appears in touch with her preeminence. Jones never seems to be making A Point with these details; Jones’ screenplay is so degreed that you almost overlook them at first.


I echo the rapturous response to An Angel at My Table some 30 years ago. The movie’s candor makes you almost fall for Frame; like Campion in 1982, you might even see the connections, emotional or otherwise, between Frame and yourself. I feel most myself when I’m writing, too, for example. That there are not more biopics as lucid as this one makes me meditate on how many dramatized biographical stories could have resonated, but didn’t, because Campion was not behind the camera, Jones not doing the writing.


ow does one go about a follow-up after making a masterwork? For Campion, the going-about entailed devising something stranger, riskier. The result was The Piano, a sensual romantic drama that would end up becoming one of the most acclaimed films of the 1990s after debuting, to thunderous praise, at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993. (To date, Campion is the only female director behind a movie that won the Palme d’Or.)


The film is set in the 1800s, and stars Holly Hunter, who won an Oscar for her performance, as Ada, a Scotswoman. She is mute — a trait that is implied to be a purposeful choice — and, as the film opens, has been sold, by her father, to a curt New Zealand frontiersman, Alisdair (Sam Neill), in the name of marriage. She is piqued by the fact that she has, centrally, been auctioned off.


But she will be civil about it so long as she is able to keep her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin, who also won an Oscar, at the age of 11, for her portrayal), and her prized, nearly orphic piano, which has been carefully shipped over. Turns out that keeping Flora around is fine but that there is no room for the instrument in the home. This results in its abandonment on the beach. You can bet, then, that that civility will be dropped.


The Piano’s narrative grows meatier when Ada begins having an affair with a man named George (Harvey Keitel), an uneducated ex-sailor who has since adopted the customs of the indigineous Māori people who live around Alisdair’s property. He is something of Alisdair’s second banana. George buys the piano from Alisdair in exchange for some land; Ada, in return, will begin providing George with piano lessons, which, ultimately, will result in her “earning back” the piano. The lessons, of course, work as a jumping-off point for a mutual erotic obsession that beckons in, and almost barely skirts, tragedy.


The Piano is indulgent. These characters are idiosyncratic to the melodramatic point of appearing performative. Hunter, whose performance vibrates in its intensity, is the fierce woman who refuses to speak and will only directly communicate, via whip-like sign language, with her daughter; Neill is the mild-mannered, self-obsessed authority who will become terrifyingly volatile; George is the middle-aged loner who has adopted a new cultural identity because he, perhaps, still doesn’t really know who he is. The images only arrive in blaring extremes: we see the greyed, wet cruelty of the natural world; the warmth of a packed living room in the evening hours; the pulsating animation of a sexual exchange; the remorseless annals of the freezing-cold ocean.


The Piano is the sort of romantic movie where a physical attraction takes precedence over an emotional one — something that, though able to be at least sensorially engaging with the right actors and the most artistically assured of directors, can be underwhelming dramatically. I was never quite moved by George and Ada’s romance, especially since it is founded, more or less, on coercion. And I found the racial and sexual politics questionable: the Māori people are one-dimensionally rendered and exoticized — portrayed as almost too benign to much care about colonization. Both leading male characters are misogynists, and the ending upholds the sexist ideal that a woman should be more than willing to surrender to the needs of a man they love. But Campion’s writing and direction are so brazen that we cannot help but get embroiled in this visually overwhelming otherworld, even if the storyline teeters on being unappealingly bold. It is like a stormy Brontë novel, only sexier and more outlandish.


When the sensational ending — which Campion, to this day, says was not what she originally had in mind — comes about, recapitulated is the truth that this movie’s willingness to be drastic is part of what makes it so hard to look away from. But Campion’s genius, I think, is most obvious when it is reflected by an understated, unhurried piece like An Angel at My Table. It is one thing to be audacious in your delivery. But it is another to reimagine someone's life and make it feel like more than a reiteration.


An Angel at My TableA

The PianoB

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