To mark the arrival of The Power of the Dog, Steph Green looks back on the acclaimed New Zealand director's landmark filmography...
“The most powerful experiences we have as humans,” Jane Campion said in 2018, “are a combination of psyche, love and erotica.” A masterful storyteller of the thorny and multifaceted inner lives of women, the Academy Award-winning director is widely considered one of the best female filmmakers in the world – though in this writer’s view, you can drop the “female.”
Expertly depicting women and their desires free from judgement or unnecessary moralisation, her deeply sensual films deploy subtle restraint and unabashed passion in equal measure, providing peepholes into worlds and microphones to voices often ignored in the cinematic canon. From contemporary independent films about Aussie families to impassioned period dramas set against dramatic landscapes, her films are distinctive and unique, the work of an auteur who – despite critical accolades and widespread revere – somehow manages to fly under the radar.
That may soon change with the arrival of The Power of the Dog, a Netflix release already spelling awards success after scooping the Silver Lion gong at the Venice Film Festival in September. With her first film in twelve years in cinemas from today, we’ve ranked Jane Campion’s filmography in celebration…
9. Two Friends (1986)
Campion’s first feature film premiered on Australian television and enjoyed a slot in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section that same year. Decidedly unfrilly, it sees a friendship between two teenage girls play out in reverse, with the film beginning after they have grown apart before we see them grow closer as the film travels into the past. While this narrative choice doesn’t really do any favours in adding emotional weight, the film is worth a watch if only to witness Campion’s first fleshed-out foray into the subtle intricacies of girlhood. At a slight 79 minutes, we begin to see some directorial flair towards the end in a moving letter-writing scene; otherwise, the low-stakes drama only hints briefly at Campion’s talents in stolen moments.
8. The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
While John Malkovich’s reedy-voiced manipulation of Nicole Kidman give us scenes that crackle with menacing electricity, this slightly overlong adaptation of Henry James’ 1881 novel is more focused on heroine Isabel Archer (Kidman) and her societal, erotic and financial repression rather than any kind of fiery passion. Far from a fusty period drama, though, Campion inserts surreal dream sequences that give us a compelling window into Isabel’s concealed desires – the knotty, frantic woes concealed behind her porcelain-doll exterior. Campion is an expert at casting and directing her male supporting characters, and understands that John Malkovich can expertly channel an unknowable, rakish sex appeal that even the most sensible of society ladies can’t resist. It may come across as a little too chilly at times, but The Portrait of a Lady remains a compelling examination of guilt and regret.
7. Sweetie (1989)
In her first theatrical release, Campion displays her unique cinematic language for insular girls whose actions can’t be easily explained away – intricate ideas conveyed through actions, not words. In a strangely tempered household in suburban Sydney, outsider Kay is a gangly, awkward twentysomething trying to establish what she wants out of the world. Her inner exploration, however, is cut short by the return of her emotionally volatile and childlike older sister Dawn. It’s a film full of the honest mess that comes from familial strife and Campion isn’t afraid to show us dirt, sex, pain, and fear. Kay is one of many intriguing Campion protagonists who come across as cold, odd fish – a fascinating character that you can spend time decoding while a domestic melodrama wreaks havoc in the background.
6. Holy Smoke! (1998)
You know those films that have to be seen to be believed? This is one of them. I can tell you that it’s about an Australian teenager who runs off to join a cult in India, and the beefy cult deprogrammer hired to “fix” her, and the bonkers erotic horseplay that ensues, and the hallucinatory, psychological fallout that follows… but you should really just see it for yourself. Possibly the apex of Harvey Keitel's “Do what you want with me!” 90s roles and starring a brilliantly unhinged Kate Winslet, it’s a film with plenty of holes – but one I can’t help but love regardless. Ultimately about the sexual politics between men and women and the twisted games we play with each other in a bid for power in the whim of a moment, it’s glorious to see these two incredible actors face off with such wild abandon.
5. An Angel at My Table (1990)
The sweeping beauty of New Zealand, a nuanced exploration of growing up in patriarchal confines, and a performance for the ages by Kerry Fox: little surprise that An Angel at My Table is one of Campion’s most celebrated works. A biography of writer Janet Frame, we witness her childhood, adolescence and adulthood battered by poorly supported mental illness and poverty in a world that seems determined to knock her down. While it perfectly examines the anxieties of shyness and girlhood, it does suffer from a lack of light and shade, with the rather depressing atmosphere prevailing for two-and-a-half-hours. Still, it’s the quintessential Campion feature in its exploration of sexual agitation, stunted communication and how insular women are able to self-actualise and find their voice in a world that shouts over them.
4. Bright Star (2009)
In true Campion fashion, the director eschews the man’s point of view – the man in question being Romantic poet John Keats – and centres the worldview of the woman, here his partner and muse Fanny Brawne. In contrast to the storminess of The Piano, Campion favours a cool and quiet atmosphere that makes delicious use of silence, whether love-filled or grief-sapped. The film is an ASMR-filled delight: rusty scissors snipping locks of hair, the pull of a thread, the rustle of a page, a hand brushing a hand. Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw act with skin-tingling sensitivity and restraint, making for a swoon-worthy atmosphere set among lush springtime scenery. Despite the elephant in the room of Keats’ waning health, you can’t help but feel comforted by the textured and fervid world Campion creates.
3. The Power of the Dog (2021)
As tensions pile up in the expansive Montana desert, audiences are left to puzzle through Campion’s deftly threaded narrative until a rug-pull leaves you rattled to the core, a final puzzle piece that snaps the image into stark focus. As Campion’s first ever male protagonist, Benedict Cumberbatch excels as an abstruse villain whose cruelty is built on intellectual showboating and cunning physicality. But it’s relative newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee who really gets your nerves jangling as a teen straight out of the American Gothic painting, all wiry frame and loping limbs. Like all of her films, The Power of the Dog is about how a certain kind of machismo subjugates and poisons all who are forced to interact with it – but perhaps never before has the director kept such a tight rein on how and when we realise this.
2. In the Cut (2003)
Not only is Campion’s much-panned sixth feature the best erotic thriller of the 21st century, Meg Ryan’s compelling, evasive lead performance effectively ended her career. Critics accused her of doing Nicole Kidman cosplay and were unforgiving about her pivot away from being America’s rom-com sweetheart, calling her “desperately, unpersuasively naked” – whatever that means. The film has rightfully undergone a re-appraisal in recent years, with many noting Campion’s masterful focus on protagonist Frannie’s sexual reawakening in the face of a rotting city and rough-edged love interest (an uncharacteristically brutish Mark Ruffalo, purged of all his natural charm). Campion’s camera almost leers at Frannie, and numbs and disturbs the viewer with its soft focus and sickly colours. Examining the idea of security in a post 9/11-New York where a serial killer is attacking women, we see the dangerous side effects – the metaphorical and literal danger, the sexual threat, the psychological impasse – that comes with sexual intimacy with men. As an exploration of desire and danger, few films can top what is now clearly a masterpiece.
1. The Piano (1993)
Simply one of the most complicated and heart-soaring depictions of desire ever put to screen, the cheek-flushing chemistry between Harvey Keitel’s George and Holly Hunter’s Ada unfurls nervously against the swampy backdrop of a New Zealand jungle. This is the perfect distillation of Campion’s mission statement that female desire is an unknowable complexity that can’t be neatly categorised into the “should.” Instead it ebbs and flows with the tide, soaring to the tune of an inner music that only sounds messy when articulated in words. Telling the story of an electively mute woman forced to decamp halfway around the world to marry a man she has never met, Campion provides us with a privileged view into the life of a person who has made the decision to express herself only through her music, and, later, sexual intimacy. It is achingly romantic and erotic in an oblique and disquieting way you often feel you shouldn’t enjoy. But just as Ada’s haunting piano playing is described by one character, Campion’s manifesto here is like “a sound that creeps into you,” zig-zagging facile arguments often used to muzzle the female libido. Don’t just take my word for it… 368 critics polled by the BBC agree: The Piano is the greatest film directed by a woman.
The Power of the Dog is released in UK cinemas on 19 November and Netflix on 1 December.