"An Angel at My Table" is a very long, very lovingly detailed movie about a woman's life -- a movie whose length is its greatest weakness but whose details, which that length makes possible, are its greatest strength.
The woman is Janet Frame, the New Zealand novelist and poet. Director Jane Campion has turned her three-volume autobiography into a 160-minute movie that is so slow it makes the somewhat similar "My Brilliant Career" seem as action-packed as "Jaws."
This is not to call "An Angel at My Table," which opens at the Charles today, a bad film. It never fails to make clear why Campion was attracted to Frame's life. The writer was mistakenly diagnosed at age 19 as a schizophrenic, endured 200 shock treatments during an eight-year hospitalization and was only saved from a lobotomy because her first collection of stories had just won an important prize.
From the beginning of the film, Janet is set apart from other children. Her pudginess and her incredible shock of curly red hair -- she looks like the sister from another planet -- help develop the shyness that is later misdiagnosed as mental illness.
Among the great strengths of this movie are the sensitive performances of the three actresses who play Janet -- Alexia Keogh as the child, Karen Fergusson as the teen-ager and Kerry Fox as the adult. Although Fox is a beautiful young woman, she's terrificat suggesting the ugly-duckling awkwardness of someone who, because of her belated development, does not understand how to be a woman -- and an unconventional one at that.
To anyone interested in details about women -- the way, for example, they sometimes hide the wrappers of the candy bars they consume -- "An Angel at My Table" is often nothing less than fascinating. We get to see the child Janet's introduction to books and to understand the ways in which becoming a reader has special meaning to girls -- how it assists in their becoming women and in their exploration of inner space, an area where few boys venture and in which women seem to have extraordinary skills.
There are other moments only a close observer like Campion could catch -- such as Janet's agreeing to be hospitalized because a handsome but callow college professor, on whom she has a crush, suggests it. Perhaps only a woman could so understand the way women sometimes victimize themselves because they so want to please men.
But while it's touching and sensitive, this movie betrays its origin as a three-part TV series for Australian and New Zealand audiences. Its leisurely pace is simply not sufficient for most theatrical audiences. One often feels that Campion and her scriptwriter, Laura Jones, just wanted to get everything in. Early on, for example, we are shown too much of Janet's being fat -- simply (or so it seems) to show us how sensitive and vulnerable she was. Campion should have established more quickly more reasons for us to care about Janet.
"An Angel at My Table" depends too much upon a viewer's good will. And its length is such that it will wear out all but the best intentions.
'An Angel at My Table'
Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson.
Directed by Jane Campion.
Released by Fine Line Features.