An Angel at My Table
With An Angel at My Table, Academy Award–winning filmmaker Jane Campion brought to the screen the harrowing autobiography of Janet Frame, New Zealand’s most distinguished author. Three actors in turn take on the lead role (including Kerry Fox in a marvelous performance as the adult Frame), as the film describes a journey from an impoverished childhood marked by tragedy to a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia resulting in electroshock therapy and a narrowly escaped lobotomy to, finally, international literary fame. Unobtrusively capturing the beauty and power of the New Zealand landscape while maintaining the film’s focus on the figure at its center, Campion broke new ground for female filmmakers everywhere and earned a sweep of her country’s film awards, along with the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table receives a new Blu-ray edition courtesy of The Criterion Collection, who present the film on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Encoded at 1080p/24hz, it appears this digital presentation is sourced from the same high-definition restoration used Criterion’s 2005 DVD, which in turn was scanned from a 35mm blow-up of the 16mm negative. In most cases this would be fine, as some older high-def masters have held up remarkably well through the years, but this one is laced with problems.
I think Criterion is simply taking that high-def master and slapping it on here as is, with no further work done. Restoration wise it doesn’t look like anything has been improved upon (there are still a number of marks, a surprising amount actually) while problems probably hidden by the DVD’s compression are now showing up (there are very small white marks, like burns of some sort, probably only a few pixels in size, that are now evident in the mid-section of the film and can be there for whole scenes). Also, cuts between shots present obvious jumps in the frame, which were evident on the DVD but are far more prominent here. I don’t think any other clean-up efforts were put into it outside of what was done during the original restoration.
Criterion’s DVD obviously applied grain management to avoid issues from compression, but they seem to have left grain alone here, though not without consequences. Since the film started out as a 3-part television series it was filmed on 16mm. Director of photography Stuart Dryburgh talks about this and then how the film was blown to 35mm when it was decided it would be a theatrical release (this also called for reframing the film to widescreen, and it’s evident while watching, as Dryburgh also mentions, things had to be chopped off from the top and/or bottom), so there’s no doubt this will be a grainy film, and it certainly is! Unfortunately grain management here is scattershot. The last section of the film and parts at the beginning look okay: the grain doesn’t look entirely clean, looking to be sharpened, but it’s passable. The mid-section of the film, which is darker, looks terrible, the grain looking blocky and digital. Other artifacts are rampant as well, with edge halos showing up quite a bit.
Blacks are a bit iffy: they look deep but have maybe been jacked up a bit, which kills shadow detail (the DVD was similar). Colours do look really good on the other hand, and outside of the darker mid-section of the film (which still has some strong blues, greys, and greens) there are some brilliant reds, oranges, and violets. And though the image can be a bit of an artifact-y mess, details are not bad, the grassy fields looking far sharper than what was on the DVD, and you can really make out the curls and individual strands in Frame’s red hair. So, if one wants improved detail and a sharper image, yes, the Blu-ray does offer that, and in this regard it is better than the DVD. But honestly, I found the DVD less annoying. Yeah, it’s softer. Yeah, it looks even more like a video presentation. Yeah, compression is an issue. But the artifacts can get bad here, the jumps in the frame between cuts are more apparent, and it’s not like this doesn’t look like a video presentation either. If your equipment can upscale a DVD well enough it may actually be less frustrating.
I’m pretty sure the issues present are inherent to the master and have nothing to do with the encode. I assume the issue is that no one is willing to pony up for a newer restoration, and it’s a shame because it is a gorgeous looking film. Even here, with a lackluster digital presentation, it’s clear the photography is exquisite, with a number of just absolutely gorgeous shots. Maybe one day this will get rectified but as of now it’s just an incredible disappointment.
The film managed to surprise me with it’s 5.1 surround track on the DVD and it still further impresses on this Blu-ray edition, now upgraded to DTS-HD MA. Dialogue in the film still can be a bit flat in comparison to the rest of the mix, but it’s clean and easy to hear, with no distortion of any sort. It’s the other areas of the mix that impress. Sound effects fill out the environment nicely, placing the viewer in the middle of some more active scenes, but it’s the music that really takes advantage of the soundstage. Music gets mixed beautifully between all of the channels, moving seamlessly and cleanly. It’s incredibly striking at times, and not what I would have ever expected for a film like this.
Criterion’s DVD didn’t exactly pack on special features but they do carry everything over from the DVD, starting things off with the 2005 audio commentary that features director Jane Campion, director of photography Stuart Dryburgh, and actor Kerry Fox. All of the participants have been recorded separately (Campion 2 years earlier) and then edited together. Campion and Dryburgh probably take up the heft of the track, talking more about the production, its television series origins, and the technical details, with Campion also talking about Frame and her life, as well as how Frame’s work has impacted her personally. Dryburgh explains the thinking behind the look of the film, gets into the lighting behind some scenes (and the no-budget solutions he came up with for some shots) and also talks specifically about the film stock, blowing the film up to 35mm from 16mm, and even talks a little bout reframing for widescreen. Fox talks primarily about how her performance, what she did to prepare for it, and all of that. Most surprising was that she watched the two younger performers to pick up on their own mannerisms and touches so she could incorporate them to make it feel like the same person. It’s a wonderfully detailed and engaging track, nicely edited as well.
A short making-of, running 10-minutes, also makes it over. It’s disappointingly short, but it has interviews with Campion and Fox, and showcases Fox recording the narration with some material from the editing room. There’s also some footage from the premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
6 deleted scenes follow next. They only run over 3-minutes, and are really just little moments, about half-a-minute each (Campion compares them to “brushstrokes” in the notes), but they were apparently removed for pacing. They’re actually pretty good though don’t add much, other than maybe one scene at a train station that would have called to an earlier scene in the film.
Criterion again provides the 23-minute radio interview featuring Janet Frame that they dug up initially for their DVD. The conversation revolves around the release of the first volume of her autobiography, To the Is-Land. Frame apparently keeps to herself and this is one of (if not) the only interviews she has done, but she is very open to talking about her work here, how words interest her (and how she likes to play with them), and even addresses criticisms brought up about her work. She’s a wonderful interview subject, engaging and quick witted.
Much to my surprise Criterion also ports stills gallery, featuring about 40 to 50 pictures of the cast and crew. There are also a number of pictures featuring Janet Frame, even one where she appears with everyone playing her in the film. With their Blu-ray upgrades Criterion has been prone to excise the navigable galleries, whether text or photos, so it’s nice they still saw fit to include these as the pictures of Frame are worth preserving.
The disc the closes with the New Line trailer then manages to port over the wonderful 35-page booklet from the DVD. It appears everything is here, starting with a short essay on Campion and the film by Amy Taubin, followed by three chapter excerpts from her autobiographies, one from each part. The notes point out how these give you not only a sampling of her writing style, but also shows how the film adapted the books (one chapter is adapted almost exactly, while the others really condense things down).
Still isn’t a packed edition, and I still kind of wish there was more academic material, whether about the film or Frame’s work, but the commentary proves to be very worthwhile.
Though Criterion at least ports all of the supplements over, the presentation is an unfortunate mess. Appearing to be simply reusing the same high-def master used for the DVD it’s laced with artifacts and obvious source issues. It doesn’t look all that great and any improvements it has over the previous DVD (like improved colours and details) are pretty much wiped out by its weak digital presentation.