The magnetic pull of Jane Campion’s films

Ben Mehlman

7 min read time

Today, November 17th, The Power of The Dog hits theaters, followed by a Netflix release on December 1st. This thrilling Western drama will mark Jane Campion’s grand return to the box office, as it's the acclaimed writer-director’s first film in 12 years. The much-buzzed-about film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. It won Campion The Silver Lion (Best Director) at this year’s Venice Film Festival and is an Oscar favorite for those behind and in front of the camera.

Directing for over 30 years, Campion is no stranger to praise, as she was the first woman to ever win the Palme d’Or. A master of her craft, Campion has an uncanny ability to tangibly capture the passion, complicated and unconventional intimacies, the sentiment of outsiders, and spiritual struggles. Each film has a complicated touch and visual reinvention that makes her narratives all the more beautiful. For example, The Piano and Holy Smoke could not feel more visually different, yet when you dig deeper both films deal with similar themes around the effects societal pressures and expectations have on their female protagonists.

Let’s take a look at Campion’s filmography:

Sweetie(1989)

What is it about: A reserved woman’s (Karen Colston) life is upended when her emotionally unstable sister (Geneviève Lemon) arrives with no place to go.

Who’s in it: Geneviève Lemon is the kinetic, hilarious, and tragic titular character, while Karen Colston plays her repressed, superstitious, and fed-up sister. Lemon and Colston beautifully play off each other to help craft a story about our families’ effects on us.

Why watch it: For a story about a serious subject matter, Sweetie is able to walk a tightrope of being an intimate, entertaining, and dry dramatic comedy. Although many films that explore families who don’t understand boundaries can be tough to watch, that is never the case here. The film’s deft touch keeps the tangible love this family feels for each other never too far from the surface.

A fun fact: While this was Campion’s first theatrical feature, her short film, An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, won the Short Film Palme d'Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.

Where to watch: HBO Max & Criterion Channel

An Angel at My Table (1990)

What is it about: Based on three autobiographies written by famed New Zealand author Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table captures the author’s harrowing journey through an impoverished childhood plagued by tragedy, being institutionalized for eight years, and somehow getting through it to arise as one of New Zealand's most famous authors.

Who’s in it: Led by a dynamic Kerry Fox—she, along with three other actresses, portrays the trials and tribulations of Janet Frame.

Why watch it: This film balances being an epic while also being an intimate portrait of a troubled but well-meaning woman through her rollercoaster of a life. While long, the journey is well worth the investment—plus it’s broken up into three chapters which makes it perfect for bathroom breaks!

A fun fact: This was originally produced as a television miniseries but was then put into movie theaters as one complete film.

Where to watch: HBO Max & Criterion Channel

The Piano (1993)

What is it about: In the mid-19th-century, a Scottish mute (Holly Hunter) is sold into marriage by her father to a New Zealand frontiersman (Sam Neill).

Who’s in it: The Piano has Campion’s most stacked cast thus far. Holly Hunter helms the film, pulling off a mind-blowing performance without saying a single word. Along her side is Anna Paquin, as Hunter’s rambunctious daughter, in one of the best child performances of all time. It also includes Harvey Keitel as Hunter’s complicated love interest and Sam Neill as her dunce husband.

Why watch it: Many consider The Piano, the film that thrust Campion into the mainstream, her best. It is a beautifully sublime journey through lust, passion, and mid-19th-century sexism, with transcendent performances that hold up almost 30 years later. Campion’s ability to bottle up what the need for creative expression looks like on-screen puts her in rarefied air. 

A fun fact: This won the 1993 Palme d’Or, making Campion the first female director to ever win. It also won three Oscars: Holly Hunter for Best Actress, Campion for Best Original Screenplay, and Anna Paquin for Best Supporting Actress. Making Paquin the second-youngest Oscar winner in history.

Where to watch: Netflix

The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

What is it about: When an ambitious and much sought-after woman (Nicole Kidman) inherits a fortune, she stumbles into a toxic relationship with a gentleman (John Malkovich) who transforms her life into a living nightmare.

Who’s in it: Nicole Kidman leads an incredible cast in this costume drama. One that also includes: John Malkovich, Christian Bale, Viggo Mortensen, Barbara Hershey, Mary-Louise Parker, Richard E. Grant, and Shelley Duvall.

Why watch it: The performances from the cast are truly top-notch. Nicole Kidman has one of her most charming and raw outings, starting off as a ray of sunshine only to be eclipsed. John Malkovich is able to entice as a conniving bastard who you can’t take your eyes off of. You can even see Christian Bale in a role that would 100% be played by Timothée Chalamet if it were cast today.

A fun fact: Barbara Hershey received her only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Madame Serena Merle.

Where to watch: Paramount+

Holy Smoke (1999)

What is it about: An Australian couple hires a cult deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel) for their daughter (Kate Winslet) after a guru in India brainwashes her.

Who’s in it: Kate Winslet goes toe-to-toe with Harvey Keitel in one of her first post-Titanic films. 

Why watch it: This is Campion’s most visually kinetic movie so far, creating a visual representation of the frustrations and scathing indictments that were below the surface of her two previous costume dramas. Campion crafts a movie that challenges the idea of power dynamics, society, cult, indoctrinated gender norms, toxic families, soft racism, and so much more. Also, it’s her funniest movie since Sweetie!

A fun fact: This is the only film Campion wrote with her sister, Anna.

Where to watch: Rent on Apple, Amazon, or YouTube

In the Cut (2003)

What is it about: A teacher (Meg Ryan) begins an affair with a detective (Mark Ruffalo) investigating the murder of a woman found dead in her neighborhood.

Who’s in it: Meg Ryan stars against type in an incredible performance as an emotionally damaged, yet far from helpless, English teacher. Joining her are Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kevin Bacon.

Why watch it: This is one of the few erotic thrillers directed by a woman, and it was a genre that felt inevitable for Campion. Many of the sexual relationships she depicts are not without some pretty rough boundaries being crossed beforehand. Though it never feels exploitative or even with judgement, it comes off more as a presentation of sexuality and romantic relationships as messy as they can get in real life. This might be Campion’s more divisive film entry but one of her most rewarding. 

A fun fact: Nicole Kidman was originally supposed to be the star but was going through her divorce from Tom Cruise and decided the role would’ve been too much to take on at the time.

Where to watch: Netflix & Criterion Channel

Bright Star (2009)

What is it about: Follows the relationship of famed 19th-century poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), one destined for tragedy.

Who’s in it: Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw have irresistible chemistry and are equally electric in this period romance. 

Why watch it: This intimate and earnest love story is maybe Campion’s most sincere film. One where external circumstances, opposed to character flaws, are more responsible for the turmoil. Cornish and Whishaw’s chemistry is palpable throughout, so when things are going well you rise up to the clouds and when things are not you are buried deep under its weight. All in all, it’s a beautiful story of love.

A fun fact: Ben Whishaw met his future husband, composer Mark Bradshaw, while they both worked on this film.

Where to watch: Netflix & Criterion Channel

Photo by Kirsty Griffin - © 2021 - Netflix

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Ben Mehlman

Ben Mehlman is a screenwriter, director, and a 2020 Black List Feature Lab alum (mentored by Beau Willimon and Jack Thorne). He is also a freelance cultural forecaster and brand consultant, analyzing everything in culture (be it pop, arts, politics, and more) in order to create insights.

The magnetic pull of Jane Campion’s films

Ben Mehlman

11/17/21

Today, November 17th, The Power of The Dog hits theaters, followed by a Netflix release on December 1st. This thrilling Western drama will mark Jane Campion’s grand return to the box office, as it's the acclaimed writer-director’s first film in 12 years. The much-buzzed-about film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. It won Campion The Silver Lion (Best Director) at this year’s Venice Film Festival and is an Oscar favorite for those behind and in front of the camera.

Directing for over 30 years, Campion is no stranger to praise, as she was the first woman to ever win the Palme d’Or. A master of her craft, Campion has an uncanny ability to tangibly capture the passion, complicated and unconventional intimacies, the sentiment of outsiders, and spiritual struggles. Each film has a complicated touch and visual reinvention that makes her narratives all the more beautiful. For example, The Piano and Holy Smoke could not feel more visually different, yet when you dig deeper both films deal with similar themes around the effects societal pressures and expectations have on their female protagonists.

Let’s take a look at Campion’s filmography:

Sweetie(1989)

What is it about: A reserved woman’s (Karen Colston) life is upended when her emotionally unstable sister (Geneviève Lemon) arrives with no place to go.

Who’s in it: Geneviève Lemon is the kinetic, hilarious, and tragic titular character, while Karen Colston plays her repressed, superstitious, and fed-up sister. Lemon and Colston beautifully play off each other to help craft a story about our families’ effects on us.

Why watch it: For a story about a serious subject matter, Sweetie is able to walk a tightrope of being an intimate, entertaining, and dry dramatic comedy. Although many films that explore families who don’t understand boundaries can be tough to watch, that is never the case here. The film’s deft touch keeps the tangible love this family feels for each other never too far from the surface.

A fun fact: While this was Campion’s first theatrical feature, her short film, An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, won the Short Film Palme d'Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.

Where to watch: HBO Max & Criterion Channel

An Angel at My Table (1990)

What is it about: Based on three autobiographies written by famed New Zealand author Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table captures the author’s harrowing journey through an impoverished childhood plagued by tragedy, being institutionalized for eight years, and somehow getting through it to arise as one of New Zealand's most famous authors.

Who’s in it: Led by a dynamic Kerry Fox—she, along with three other actresses, portrays the trials and tribulations of Janet Frame.

Why watch it: This film balances being an epic while also being an intimate portrait of a troubled but well-meaning woman through her rollercoaster of a life. While long, the journey is well worth the investment—plus it’s broken up into three chapters which makes it perfect for bathroom breaks!

A fun fact: This was originally produced as a television miniseries but was then put into movie theaters as one complete film.

Where to watch: HBO Max & Criterion Channel

The Piano (1993)

What is it about: In the mid-19th-century, a Scottish mute (Holly Hunter) is sold into marriage by her father to a New Zealand frontiersman (Sam Neill).

Who’s in it: The Piano has Campion’s most stacked cast thus far. Holly Hunter helms the film, pulling off a mind-blowing performance without saying a single word. Along her side is Anna Paquin, as Hunter’s rambunctious daughter, in one of the best child performances of all time. It also includes Harvey Keitel as Hunter’s complicated love interest and Sam Neill as her dunce husband.

Why watch it: Many consider The Piano, the film that thrust Campion into the mainstream, her best. It is a beautifully sublime journey through lust, passion, and mid-19th-century sexism, with transcendent performances that hold up almost 30 years later. Campion’s ability to bottle up what the need for creative expression looks like on-screen puts her in rarefied air. 

A fun fact: This won the 1993 Palme d’Or, making Campion the first female director to ever win. It also won three Oscars: Holly Hunter for Best Actress, Campion for Best Original Screenplay, and Anna Paquin for Best Supporting Actress. Making Paquin the second-youngest Oscar winner in history.

Where to watch: Netflix

The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

What is it about: When an ambitious and much sought-after woman (Nicole Kidman) inherits a fortune, she stumbles into a toxic relationship with a gentleman (John Malkovich) who transforms her life into a living nightmare.

Who’s in it: Nicole Kidman leads an incredible cast in this costume drama. One that also includes: John Malkovich, Christian Bale, Viggo Mortensen, Barbara Hershey, Mary-Louise Parker, Richard E. Grant, and Shelley Duvall.

Why watch it: The performances from the cast are truly top-notch. Nicole Kidman has one of her most charming and raw outings, starting off as a ray of sunshine only to be eclipsed. John Malkovich is able to entice as a conniving bastard who you can’t take your eyes off of. You can even see Christian Bale in a role that would 100% be played by Timothée Chalamet if it were cast today.

A fun fact: Barbara Hershey received her only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Madame Serena Merle.

Where to watch: Paramount+

Holy Smoke (1999)

What is it about: An Australian couple hires a cult deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel) for their daughter (Kate Winslet) after a guru in India brainwashes her.

Who’s in it: Kate Winslet goes toe-to-toe with Harvey Keitel in one of her first post-Titanic films. 

Why watch it: This is Campion’s most visually kinetic movie so far, creating a visual representation of the frustrations and scathing indictments that were below the surface of her two previous costume dramas. Campion crafts a movie that challenges the idea of power dynamics, society, cult, indoctrinated gender norms, toxic families, soft racism, and so much more. Also, it’s her funniest movie since Sweetie!

A fun fact: This is the only film Campion wrote with her sister, Anna.

Where to watch: Rent on Apple, Amazon, or YouTube

In the Cut (2003)

What is it about: A teacher (Meg Ryan) begins an affair with a detective (Mark Ruffalo) investigating the murder of a woman found dead in her neighborhood.

Who’s in it: Meg Ryan stars against type in an incredible performance as an emotionally damaged, yet far from helpless, English teacher. Joining her are Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kevin Bacon.

Why watch it: This is one of the few erotic thrillers directed by a woman, and it was a genre that felt inevitable for Campion. Many of the sexual relationships she depicts are not without some pretty rough boundaries being crossed beforehand. Though it never feels exploitative or even with judgement, it comes off more as a presentation of sexuality and romantic relationships as messy as they can get in real life. This might be Campion’s more divisive film entry but one of her most rewarding. 

A fun fact: Nicole Kidman was originally supposed to be the star but was going through her divorce from Tom Cruise and decided the role would’ve been too much to take on at the time.

Where to watch: Netflix & Criterion Channel

Bright Star (2009)

What is it about: Follows the relationship of famed 19th-century poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), one destined for tragedy.

Who’s in it: Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw have irresistible chemistry and are equally electric in this period romance. 

Why watch it: This intimate and earnest love story is maybe Campion’s most sincere film. One where external circumstances, opposed to character flaws, are more responsible for the turmoil. Cornish and Whishaw’s chemistry is palpable throughout, so when things are going well you rise up to the clouds and when things are not you are buried deep under its weight. All in all, it’s a beautiful story of love.

A fun fact: Ben Whishaw met his future husband, composer Mark Bradshaw, while they both worked on this film.

Where to watch: Netflix & Criterion Channel

Photo by Kirsty Griffin - © 2021 - Netflix

Ben Mehlman

Website
Ben Mehlman is a screenwriter, director, and a 2020 Black List Feature Lab alum (mentored by Beau Willimon and Jack Thorne). He is also a freelance cultural forecaster and brand consultant, analyzing everything in culture (be it pop, arts, politics, and more) in order to create insights.

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