Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Jane Campion

In less than ten films, Jane Campion has established herself as one of the strongest auteurs of modern cinema. Her films are thoughtful, written dialogue natural, and she is able to compel actors to perform at their best and disappear into the roles she creates. This month, the auteur’s breakout film The Piano is receiving a 4K restoration and her latest film, The Power of the Dog, continues to receive accolades, mostly recently the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama. What better occasion to write about her and her films than January’s Retrospective Roundtable?

An Angel at My Table (1990)

By Lauren Mattice

“Quietly but completely absorbing” is the most apt descriptor for Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, a three-part biographical film following the unfortunate life of renowned New Zealand author Janet Frame. Originally aired as a television series, Campion takes a unique yet hands-off care of Frame’s source material — her own autobiographies — to diligently build up scenes of a life beginning in poverty, marked by the tenderness of sisterhood and a newfound love of literature and poetry. Campion’s eye brings the same direct attention to the gorgeous New Zealand landscape as it does to Frame’s tragedies, as unflinching as ice to a fresh wound. From the loss of siblings to a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, Frame’s return to writing and subsequent fame is the only restorative force that can bring back a woman from the depths of her own mind.

Slow and steady is Campion’s traversal through Frame’s visual diary. Even with the diligence, not every question needs to be answered, such as what the main motivation for Janet’s writing rests in. What Campion does instead is elevate writing to a force as omnipotent as tragedy, slowly coming to form in a way that great coming of age narratives wrestle with and succeed in depicting. An Angel at My Table is worth a watch, and for every return to the film you learn a new insight into the struggles of identity, mental health and intellectual solitude.

The Piano (1993)

By Eugene Kang

The Piano would be one of the earlier movies that Miramax acquired and, with savvy advertising and relentless campaigning, would push into awards talk. As problematic as the Weinsteins were, even before Harvey Weinstein’s crimes became more widely known, they were able to show audiences films that would have never seen the light of day outside of their own countries. Yet Miramax soon fell into the trap of buying the rights to movies that mostly looked handsome and didn’t offer much else in terms of artistic merit (Chocolat, Mediterraneo, etc.) The Piano is sometimes lumped in with those lesser films, but Jane Campion’s tale of a forbidden, problematic love cuts like a knife through whatever period sheen it has. 

Holly Hunter plays Ada, a mute Scotswoman, who has been betrothed to Alisdair (Sam Neill) in New Zealand because he is the only suitor who does not mind her muteness and that she has had a child out of wedlock (Anna Paquin). Harvey Keitel plays a fellow frontiersman who offers to buy the piano from Alisdair that Ada has brought from Scotland, and that he has left unceremoniously on the beach because it wouldn’t fit in their new home. When Ada attempts to get the piano back, Keitel’s character proposes a deal where she can earn her piano back one white key at a time in exchange for whatever he wants to do with her. The relationship that develops between them is problematic and abusive though the power dynamics shift in interesting ways that Campion captures beautifully, especially in terms of how the sometimes hostile physical environment reflects the emotional states of her characters. The cinematography and the storytelling combined with the essential and famous score by Michael Nyman all combine to make a rich, complex story of sexuality and empowerment.

In the Cut (2003)

By Eugene Kang

In the Cut has the dubious honor of receiving an F Cinemascore during its original release. While many of the films that have received an F are quite deserving, a handful of them are auteur-driven works that have become cult classics such as Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and, of course, In the Cut. In the Cut is a deliberately ugly-looking film, suffused with a green patina that de-glamorizes New York City and reflects the emotional numbness of the protagonist played by Meg Ryan. Ryan was criticized for her seemingly inert performance, but on closer examination, her practically catatonic state is brought about by the environment of potential sexual violence that constantly envelops her and other women. Mark Ruffalo seemingly plays an embodiment of her fear of men as a detective investigating the murder of a young woman in what may be one of his best performances, certainly vastly different from his most popular role as Bruce Banner/Hulk in the Marvel movies.

In the Cut was definitely a departure for Campion artistically. It was her first real dive into genre movies and a hard left turn from the visual lushness that characterized many of her films in the 1990s. Yet themes of sexual violence and the tenuousness of female empowerment run throughout all her movies, and come to a violent and seedy head in this film. Modern viewers have reevaluated In the Cut as an essential work that marked dramatic artistic growth for Campion. At the very least, one can see In the Cut as a unique landmark in the careers of everyone involved.

Bright Star (2009)

By Alex Sitaras

Period films can sometimes distance you from their characters with their unfamiliar, decorated mise-en-scene that bears little in common with the modern day, but Jane Campion has never struggled in that regard. The reason, of course, being that her characters are so well-written and that Campion enables us to think and feel what her characters are feeling without becoming lost in their surroundings. And that’s not to say that 1818 Hampstead isn’t portrayed beautifully – it’s just that the romance that forms between Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whislaw) is portrayed so sincerely and with full consideration to the hardships and challenges that come between them. John is a young poet who, despite his legacy today, wasn’t particularly successful during his life. Nonetheless, Fanny is taken with him, and John falls deeply in love with her, writing a number of his best works about Fanny and their love. The two want to pursue marriage, but Fanny’s family is concerned about John’s capability to support a family financially. Their relationship is never truly accepted, even when John contracts tuberculosis, and Jane Campion portrays both the beauty and tragedy of their fateful romance through both her characters and Keats’ poetry alike.

The Power of the Dog (2021)

By Alex Sitaras

The Power of the Dog is a film that has grown on me, especially after seeing a few Campion films since. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a mean, vulgar man, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, a young man who quickly becomes the target of Phil’s cruelty. The cast is rounded out by real life couple Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons who play Peter’s mother Rose and Phil’s brother George, respectively. The film is set in 1920s Montana as Phil and George are in the middle of a cattle drive and are staying at Rose’s inn. George quickly becomes enamored with Rose, and Phil, perhaps jealous, retaliates through his rudeness and impossible to miss malice towards Rose and Peter. But, Peter uncovers a secret of Phil’s, and Phil begins to show kindness to Peter instead, offering to make the introverted, studious boy a lasso and teach him how to ride a horse. Rose is suspicious of Phil’s intentions and fearful Peter might take a liking to Phil. The sense of rising unease that Campion develops results in a film that is a can’t-miss from the New Zealand director.

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