AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (New Zealand,1990) *** 1/2. Cast: Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Iris Churn, K.J. Wilson, et al. Directed by Jane Campion. Producer, Bridget Ikin. Screenplay, Laura Jones. Cinematography, Stuart Dryburgh. Production design, Grant Major. Editor, Veronika Haussler. Music, Don McGlashan. An Australia-New Zealand-Great Britain coproduction. A Fine Line release. 158 min. Not rated. (If rated, probably PG-13 for adult situations). At the Art theater.

A remarkable second feature by New Zealander Jane Campion, AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE is additionally , as the list of credits shows, a remarkable women's film -- not , of course, in the old sense of Hollywood's melodramatic weepies.

ANGEL is the 3-part filmization of the 3-volume biography of New Zealand writer Janet Frame (b. 1924). Janet grows up with four siblings in a rural environment that may at first recall that of poor white dirt farmers in the American South. But this impression is soon laid to rest by the unexpected sensitivity to literature in schools that feed Janet's poetic tendencies, and a family that, though uncultured, provides understanding and encouragement.

Janet is an unprepossessing fat girl with a messy mass of carrot curls, bad teeth and round, staring eyes. She could be a monster child from outer space in a science-fiction movie, but she is really a born writer, introverted and shy, yet not without friends. As a teen-ager her appearance improves though not her shyness. While at a teachers' college, a nervous breakdown is misdiagnosed as schizophrenia and she spends 8 years in a hospital, subjected to over 200 shocks of electrotherapy. She is barely saved from lobotomy by the publication of a prize-winning first book.

After a second book is accepted, a grant allows Janet to go to Europe in the 1950s. She loses her virginity in Ibiza, is assured by a London psychiatrist that she never had schizophrenia, and is courted by a major publishing house. She returns to New Zealand when her father dies.

Jane Campion's first feature, SWEETIE, was about a demented sister in a none-too-sane family. Campion is at home with strangeness. In SWEETIE she treated it in a rather crazy, self-conscious style. Here she handles it with directness and what might sound like a contradiction in terms : a cool warmth -- like certain first-person stories in The New Yorker magazine.

The picture is elliptical, does not underline its effects and is well-rounded, with a few exceptions (like the unclear conditions surrounding Janet's first book) probably due to the original conception of the story as a miniseries, later trimmed to movie length.

In Hollywood , the subject would have yielded to slick sensationalism, from the grime of Janet's environment to her first period to the accidental drowning of her sister. And especially in the hospital scenes which , observed with documentary distancing, are nonetheless as horrifying as those of the classic THE SNAKE PIT.

Campion and her collaborators refuse dramatics, bravura passages, easy metaphors or symbols. Their visual flair is present but unobtrusive. The progress of the ugly duckling to still-awkward and unglamorous maturity is increasingly affecting . The film almost always knows when to cut and how to imply much through a few deft, underplayed touches: such as those of the child getting a library book for each family member and the latter accepting it with moving naturalness; such as the rapid sketching of Janet's smitten, creepy London neighbor; such as the tranquil ironies concerning Janet's more subtly creepy summer lover, a would-be poet American professor who interrupts love-making to read Janet his verse.

The three actresses portraying Janet Frame are uncannily well-matched and singularly convincing. They add enormously to the high level of ensemble film-making.

[Published August 28, 1991]