An Angel at My Table
With An Angel at My Table, Academy Award–winning filmmaker Jane Campion brings to the screen the harrowing true-life story of Janet Frame, New Zealand’s most distinguished author. The film follows Frame along her inspiring journey, from a poverty-stricken childhood to a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia and electroshock therapy to, finally, international literary fame. Beautifully capturing the color and power of the New Zealand landscape, the film earned Campion a sweep of her country’s film awards and the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
The Criterion Collection’s original DVD for Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table presents the film in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on a dual-layer disc. The standard-definition presentation comes from a high-definition restoration scanned from a 35mm blow-up of the 16mm negative. The image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
It’s a surprisingly colourful film, with some really bright moments bursting with some wonderful greens, reds, and purples, which look really lovely on this DVD. Even the darker scenes (which is most of mid-section of the film, reflecting the darker tone) deliver wonderful looking blues and greens. Blacks look fairly deep but this in turn seems to kill shadow delineation.
Originally intended for television the film was shot on 16mm only to be blown to 35mm and reframed for the widescreen format. This is addressed in the commentary and there’s mention there were limitations to reframing, cutting off information at the top and bottom and there are spots where the framing can look off, but it is what it is. Since it was filmed on 16mm and then blown to 35mm I would expect the film to be very grainy, and it is there, but it has obviously been toned down digitally to avoid it coming off noisy and blocky. It’s simply a limitation of the format that this had to be done, but what ends up happening is the image ends up being softened and details become limited. I’m still impressed with what can be pulled off (some fields look nice, the details of Janet Frame’s curly red hair are clear) but long shots look flat and lack depth.
Restoration has been done but there are still a number of issues. The frame can jump between cuts for starters. It’s subtle, but it is noticeable from time to time. There are also a number of small spots that come up every so often. But in general the image is clean and stable, and all-around it looks fine, even upscaled.
Criterion presents the film with a wonderfully active Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. I was never expecting much from this but it sounds wonderful, spreading activity wonderfully between the speakers. There is a lot of background noise, whether it be in a busy setting or the wind, but the film’s score ends up making the most use of the extra channels, with sounds moving seamlessly around the viewer.
The only area the track disappoints is dialogue, which can come off flat with little range, and it only sticks out more because everything else sounds far more dynamic and richer. I assume that the dialogue may be flatter simply because the film was originally planned for television. Either way, the presentation does still offer some nice surprises.
Criterion’s special delivers a small selection of supplements but they’re a solid batch. The best is easily the 2005 audio commentary featuring director Jane Campion, director of photography Stuart Dryburgh, and actor Kerry Fox. All 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, has also been included. 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.
The New Line trailer follows next and then Criterion is wonderful enough to dig up a 23-minute radio interview featuring Janet Frame, talking about the release of the first volume of her autobiography, To the Is-Land. She 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.
The disc then closes with a navigable 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. Criterion also includes a wonderful 35-page booklet, featuring a short essay on Campion and the film by Amy Taubin, followed by three chapter excerpts from her autobiographies, one from each. 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).
In the end it isn’t a packed edition, but the audio commentary makes up for the lack of much else, covering the film’s production from all angles. I just wish more academic material could have been found here, either around the film or Frame.
Could be better in areas: more academic features on the film or Frame would have pushed this release up a notch, as would a sharper presentation. As it is, though, it’s still a decent edition.