Wednesday, July 4, 2012

#301: An Angel at My Table

(Jane Campion, 1990)

Jane Campion's career is a study in the cinematic gender divide. Campion made two films, Sweetie and this miniseries-turned-epic, that established her reputation before rising to international acclaim with The Piano, a beautiful if somewhat overwrought near-masterpiece that established her as one of the major filmmakers of her generation. However, Campion followed up the film with a couple of pictures - the striking visual statement of The Portrait of a Lady and the oddball Holy Smoke - that veered from the conventional path for a rising filmmaker by maintaining an intimate scope and continuing to depict understated women in personal journeys. Needless to say, by the 00s, when Campion's work became less impressive, most viewers had already moved on. Campion's current project - a TV miniseries for Australian and UK television starring Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss - looks extremely promising but has received little buzz in the film nerd community.

All of this is a shame because - as An Angel at My Table shows - Campion truly deserved the attention she received. Her eye is both unique and refined, making the film a complete pleasure to look at. Apart from her visually engaging style, Campion has a light touch with storytelling, constantly allowing her characters to move at their own pace. Here, Campion tells the story of author Janet Frame in a narrative that feels less like a conventional biopic and more like a series of points that form a line when viewed from afar. Frame is often deathly shy in the film, making a nearly three hour look into a life best explained by prose seem like an odd choice for a film, but her blossoming personality and the knowledge that her offscreen talents were able to save her from her onscreen setbacks make the film gradually rewarding. In the meantime, Campion's visuals ensure a rapt attention. It's impossible to watch An Angel at My Table and not come away thinking that this is a filmmaker with a massive talent. While I didn't like Sweetie, both films are welcome additions to the collection not just because they were helmed by the rare female director but because they are distinctly feminine, a characteristic often undervalued in film. It's a case for a reevaluation of her whole career, and it reminds me to stick with her future work for unforeseen rewards.

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