There is a grand distinction between being antisocial and being insane. One does not necessarily follow from the other, and people who are psychotic often have their tendencies misdiagnosed as against society when they are really anti-everything. No, people who prefer their own company have reasons for the self-imposed exile, most of them very private and very prickly. They tend to see themselves as isolated, islands in a large sea of dissimilar personalities. Such a sense becomes a barrier, a constantly refortified buttress that must be maintained and rebuilt whenever anyone attempts to break through it. With each advance and repair comes psychological scar tissue, formed from the anxiety of interaction and the tranquility of evasion. It’s no more Pavlovian than that—people cause stress, the lack of same causes peace. As we are creatures of comfort by nature, the tendency toward unfriendliness is not unexpected. It is just not a state of being we usually relish.
But for those with a delicate artistic temperament, for anyone who has ever felt stigmatized or marginalized because they were different—physically or socially, for people who perceive the world as a great big playground that they are not allowed to enter, a desire to alienate and retreat from the human condition is part of the process. It’s art’s mandate. It’s emotion’s missive. Frankly, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be far from the maddening crowd, or lost in a world of your own devising and design. It’s when the outside realm not longer has meaning, when the brain confuses fantasy with fulfillment that problems occur. For the painfully shy Janet “Jean” Frame, a poverty-stricken existence on the outer edge of New Zealand was already about as removed from civilization as one could get. But with her wholly introverted manner and lack of interpersonal skills, tragedy and truth ganged up on her, leaving her vulnerable and violated. She would be hounded by claims of mental illness all her life, even hospitalized for it. But she always had a savior, a guardian at her side. As Jane Campion shows in her amazing film from 1989, Frame had writing. Her love of language and the written word saved her. It was an angel at her table.
Janet “Jean” Frame was the miserable middle child in a household constantly falling into financial ruin. Her father worked for the New Zealand railroads, and her mother was a mighty matron trying to raise four girls (Janet—or Jean—was one) and an epileptic son. As she grew, Jean’s childhood was a series of isolated instances: making and breaking friendships, scolding and holding blames. By the time she reached adolescence, she was socially stunted and emotionally crippled. Tragedy seemed to be eroding her fragile psyche when she least expected or wanted it, and there was never any support, either from peers or parents.
Still, Jean loved to write. She worshipped poetry and found herself humbled by prose. She would spend hours poring over books and filling her journals with stanzas and skylarking. While away at teacher-training college, her mournful, saddening sonnets got the attention of the faculty. One thought she needed help, and it wasn’t long before Jean was a resident of Seacliff, one of the country’s most notorious mental hospitals. She spent eight years in asylums, receiving over 200 electro-shock treatments to “cure” her misdiagnosed schizophrenia. Again, it was her words that saved her. An administrator discovered that one of Jean’s short-story collections had been published, and was the winner of a prestigious award. She was soon back home, and well on her way to becoming one of New Zealand’s, and the world’s preeminent authors. Jean eventually chronicled her collapse in a trilogy of insightful memoirs—To the Is-Land, The Envoy from Mirror City, and An Angel at My Table.
It was Harlan Ellison who once said, and this is pure paraphrasing, that one of the most important parts of maturity is learning to understand the difference between being lonely, and being alone. When you learn to stop feeling lonely, and learn to enjoy being alone, you enter the realm of true wisdom and earn a key to that most misunderstood of realms known as adulthood. Why people panic about being alone is an interpersonal mystery of many facets. Sometimes, it’s the way one was raised that affects this emotion. Individuals who enjoy families filled with love, those blessed with best friends and a substantial social calendar may seem lost without a constant stream of humanity humming about them. Others whom like the connection between people and places may appear alarmed when not surrounded by the pulsing and pushing of life. But when you can be by yourself, and not feel frightened or fidgety, that is a sign of development. It is an acknowledgment of individual mortality. It is recognition of personal worth.
Besides, being alone has its benefits. It is the catalyst for self discovery, and a way of learning about preferences and proclivities. We uncover much more about our own way of being when we are by ourselves than any amount of interaction with siblings or confidants. It’s like looking in a metaphysical mirror, and trying to see what’s beneath the forced facade of communal dictations and cultural signs. That journey, and the eventual discovery of the hidden human treasure inside, is one of the great voyages anyone can ever go on. Being lonely has its side effects as well. Alienation and isolation can come calling as companions to the state of longing, and without immediate gratification or the promise of a people fix, the addiction drives deeper and hurts harder. Soon, the need for another person becomes a plague, a tiny tendril of fear that eventually rages like a fever all over the body. Thoughts then become muddled, motives foggy and shrouded.
In Jane Campion’s moving and magical biography of New Zealand author Janet “Jean” Frame, we witness the cinematic expedition of one woman’s shift from painful loneliness to acceptable solitude. It’s a tragic tale of missed opportunities, lost loves, and many misconceptions. Frame found solace in writing, but it would not be an easy notebook to navigate. Throughout her growing years, Frame was an outcast, a lower-class bumpkin with an unruly mop of iconic red hair. Yet what we learn is that, once she understood that being different was all right, that there was nothing so terribly wrong about losing oneself in words and sentences, Frame found her own inner peace. That is why An Angel at My Table is such an epic undertaking. It moves from the miniature to the major, from a celebration of solitude to a statement about those wide-open personal spaces, both external and internal. Based on Frame’s own autobiographical trilogy and conceived for New Zealand television as a three-part miniseries, Campion reconfigured the long-form feature for a big screen release. And the results are resplendent.
This is indeed a movie in movements. Since it was conceived in segments, it is easy to view Campion’s command of the cinematic language in each and every phase. “To the Is-Land” is childhood as impressionism and rose-colored romanticizing. There is no real linear narrative in Part 1 of Frame’s life, just a series of shots and a collection of moments that begin to paint her person in broad, bravado strokes. We see Frame as a baby, wandering the overly green grasses of New Zealand’s farmland. Later, a more mature child walks down a long, lonely highway by herself, inner monologue working overtime about her outsider status among the community. Right from the start, Campion is emphasizing isolation. The young actress essaying the role of Frame is practically lost in the vastness of an opalescent Kiwi horizon. More parts are painted in—happiness and heartache, with everything being set up for the second section of the story.
“An Angel at My Table” shifts the focus to Frame’s college years, and does a more normative job of highlighting the girl’s tragic tale. The main focus here is Frame’s horrifying hospitalization. While avoiding Snake Pit-like proselytizing, we instantly recognize the indignity of placing a shy but talented girl who really only needs some attention and a kind hand into the barbaric restraints of the New Zealand mental health system. Seacliff is the most notorious of them all, a squalid place that we first view when a young Jean sees the city’s train station from a coach window. There, she witnesses the castoff mentality of the nation’s citizens as “loonies” wander freely, frightened and fighting their own angst-ridden demons. She immediately understands the reputation derived from a stay at such a place. Unfortunately, Frame stays for almost eight years. Campion depicts the passage of time in tableaus of decreasing conditions. The beginning phases are seen as almost tranquil. But by the end, Frame is in fear for her mental life.
Many may wonder why this sequence is not the heart of An Angel at My Table‘s story. After all, the horrors of the psychology industry are at the heart of many melodramatic movies. Yet this is not really what Campion wants to discuss. Certainly, Frame’s stay is important, but it is more empowering than entrapping. Prior to her commitment, Jean is seen as scattered and unskilled. She wants to be a writer, but can’t find the way to make anyone understand it. When she has her first breakdown (during a teacher’s evaluation), it’s a sign. It’s her mind telling her to quit this mundane masquerade and get on with the art. So Campion is out to show how the written word saved Frame’s life—and indeed it does. It is her prose that frees her from the institution. It is her poetry that questions the diagnosis of intellectual dysfunction. Once “cured” by the love of language, Frame simply has to find her place in the world. Once again, writing would come to the rescue.
“The Envoy from Mirror City,” the last act in the story, differs dramatically from the other sections in Campion’s film in many ways. Parts 1 and 2 take place over years, time having no meaning or place within the main narrative drive. Events are used as accents, highpoints in an overall personality profile. But by the time we reach Frame in her late 20s, she has already suffered through death and defeat, experiencing a hundred lifetimes in the unruly one she’s been given. So Campion concentrates on a single section of Frame’s later story—a fabled trip to Europe and, most specifically, Spain. It is during this holiday from hopelessness that Frame finally grows up. She experiences responsibility and rejection. She looks for love and finds it. Sex shows up and divulges its secrets. And Frame finally discovers that there is more to life than writing. Throughout the final phases of the story, we see her happy and content—or at least as happy and content as she can be—and we realize that somewhere inside her is the capability of solace without language. Luckily, at the end of her adventures, she has both to keep her sane.
This is why An Angel at My Table is unlike any biography you will ever see. Part character study, part carefully crafted human sketchpad, we are prompted to view our heroine from the inside out, not the circumstances in. Indeed, Frame’s life—aside from her stay in the asylum—plays out like most notable stories of growing up. Sure, this little girl ages to be a published author, but there is a significant lack of skeletons and scandal in her closet. The most iconic element about Frame, and something Campion uses consistently as counterpoint, is her brazen bush of hair. Flaming red as if her mind is constantly alight with fires of inspiration and anxiety, this girl is a body under a halo of follicle happenstance. There is one amazing shot, after the bomb has been dropped on Pearl Harbor, where a pre-hospitalization Frame goes walking away from a group of friends. As the camera stays put, we see her silhouette fade off into the distant. Once it loses its human form, the image becomes symbolic. Frame appears as an object with a large, domineering dome situated on its apex. It marks her as a woman with a head loaded with ideas and talent. It also argues for an unfortunate whose psyche is about to burst.
Another reason An Angel at My Table is so unusual is that it has the feeling of a fairy tale, of a story unstuck in real time. Though world events touch this tiny part of New Zealand, the Frame family appears lodged at the literal fringes of existence. Campion paints her native country in as many mesmerizing strokes as fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson would in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Within this realm of real magic, Campion places her characters, and allows them to interact with the landscape. There are dozens of shots of people set against the horizon, of fences climbing hills and livestock overrunning the land. This director seems to be saying that Frame’s story of growing up and maturing is almost in sync with the expansion of New Zealand’s national identity. Both are closed off and isolated universes. Both contain talents and terrors. Each has a rugged desire to endure, and both come out as survivors of a sort in the end. It is not easy to name another film that allows tranquility to so readily slip into fear as An Angel at My Table. New Zealand is still a wild and woolly environment during Frame’s childhood, much like the girl herself.
Of course, Campion requires more than just beautiful backdrops to make her points. She needs actors capable of transcendence, performers blessed with unbridled tenacity. Required to carry the majority of the movie on her back, Kerry Fox is fantastic as the adult version of Frame. Though the actresses playing her younger selves (Karen Ferguson as the childhood Jean, Alexia Keogh as the adolescent Frame) add equal amounts of depth to the portrayal, Fox is left with the most complicated part of our heroine. She must transport all the youthful issues locked up inside the various stages of her saga and let them flow across her in a constant stream of psychological unease. It helps tremendously that Fox has a perfectly fragile voice. When she speaks, in a low lilting tone, it’s like listening to lace disintegrate. As her doomed sisters, Melina Bernecker (as Myrtle) and Samantha Townsely (as the feisty and fiery Isabel) also leave lasting impressions. They argue for what a non-artistic Jean could have ended up being. They are girls of the game, promiscuous and proud, using their physicality and sexuality to crawl out from under the paucity around them. They can’t help their sad sibling just as she cannot save them. Everyone is doomed, yet An Angel at My Table also argues that, sometimes, we hold our own salvation in our hands.
Interestingly, this is not a feel-good fable. There is no major amount of emotional uplift at the end of this story, no five handkerchief histrionics where life is reaffirmed and melancholy mopped up. No, for Jean Frame, there is just a happy state of solemn eccentricity. Established now as an author and her own person, she lives alone in a caravan, existing in a kind of nominal no-man’s land where everything is calm and creative. She has the world when she wants (or needs it). The same goes for her writing. It is a credit to Campion that we don’t obsess over this idea. We see it for what it is—the natural result of Jean Frame’s arduous personal journey. It was hard to even doubt she would ever make it. After all, she had art to look after her, and there is no better angel at one’s table than talent.