Filmmaker Jane Campion (Sweetie, 1990) was a teenager when she read Owls Do Cry, the first novel of fellow New Zealander Janet Frame. With an ardor perhaps only an adolescent could muster, Campion identified. Detailing the inner life of a troubled girl in a small New Zealand town, the novel described ”madness, real madness,” says Campion. ”It had an almost spiritual flow, a poetic quality to it. I remember feeling very much attached to it.” So much, in fact, that years later, while still a film student, Campion convinced Frame to sell her the rights to her three-part autobiography. The result is Campion’s second feature, An Angel at My Table.
”We saw it as a TV series,” says Campion, 36, of the movie. ”We didn’t really see audiences responding to a film.” But when the director had a test screening at the Sydney (Australia) Film Festival, audiences loved it. Angel went on to receive seven prizes at the Venice Film Festival, and Campion agreed to a theatrical release.
Some of the film’s most memorable passages depict the day-to-day traumas of Frame’s fairly ordinary childhood. That, says Campion, was intentional. ”The strongest thing that came through to me about the books was not so much Frame’s literary genius but the quality of her memory,” she says. ”There is this incredibly disarming quality about her frankness. And the details she remembers! It had a powerful effect on me.”
Was it hard to work so closely with the subject on an autobiographical film? ”We really didn’t want to do anything to displease her,” says Campion. ”We gave her copies of the script as versions came out, and she let us know what she was unhappy with. But she’s an artist, and she respects your need for freedom. She gave us nothing but encouragement.”