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An Angel at My Table: The Criterion Collection

An Angel at My Table (1990) was director Jane Campion's second theatrically released feature, and it still ranks as her best work to date, which — considering she's one of only two women ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar (for The Piano) — is saying something. The meticulously, imaginatively realized film was adapted from a three-part autobiography by Janet Frame, one of New Zealand's most celebrated writers. Campion's picture, which is itself divided into thirds, follows Frame from her poor rural childhood through a promising literary beginning, a nervous breakdown, psychiatric misdiagnosis, eight years of institutionalization, and, eventually, a measure of personal and professional fulfillment. With a narrative that spans nearly four decades in both its subject's life and the world in general, Campion fashions an intimate epic which, despite its length and sometimes depressing occurrences, never flags. Three actresses portray Frame at different points in her life, and the performances are directed so skillfully that the transitions between them are nearly seamless. It helps that Frame's distinctive appearance, a chubby face surrounded by an explosive sphere of curly orange hair, makes her instantly recognizable. Playing the writer from her late teens onward, through the last two-thirds or so of the film, is actress Kerry Fox, who made an astonishingly assured debut here; she has been almost criminally underused in the years since.

The Criterion Collection edition of An Angel at My Table includes illuminating commentary from Campion, Fox, and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. The three were recorded separately, but their comments are expertly edited together to provide a fascinating look at the making of this unique film. Campion discusses the trepidation she felt at preparing the picture, originally made as a television miniseries, for theatrical release — an anxiety that was only allayed when it won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The tale makes a nice analog with Frame's own — she was only released from hospital after her short story collection won a prestigious literary prize. Dryburgh's comments are especially instructive, technical, and detailed, without ever being obtuse; anyone with an interest in the cinematographic arts would be well-advised to give him a listen. Fox talks about the difficulties of inhabiting such a painful role, and she recalls how, for a nude swimming scene, she made the entire crew strip down and join her in the water. The disc's other supplements include a short "making-of" documentary with some nice archival footage (10 min.), six deleted scenes, and an audio interview with Frame herself. The accompanying booklet includes an essay by film critic Amy Taubin and short excerpts from each third of Frame's autobiography. An Angel at My Table is presented in a good anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) supervised by Dryburgh, which is stunning. In addition, the film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio for the first time. Keep-case.
—Marc Mohan

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