In Their Own League Hall of Fame: Jane Campion

“I would love to see more women directors because they represent half of the population – and gave birth to the whole world. Without them writing and being directors, the rest of us are not going to know the whole story.”

Jane Campion

By Bianca Garner

Jane Campion is an extraordinary filmmaker. In fact, she’s the second woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director and the first female filmmaker to receive the Palme d’Or; both of these achievements came for “The Piano” (1993). Campion’s films often feature strong female lead characters who rebel against the strict constraints of the society that they inhabit. She has an unique storytelling technique, often using all of aspects of the mise-en-scene to capture the world that her characters exist in, and plays around with non-linear editing in order to draw the audience in. She’s well overdue a place in our Hall of Fame, so we have decided to dedicate our next slot to her.

Campion was born in Wellington, New Zealand. She was the second daughter of the second daughter of Edith Campion (née Beverley Georgette Hannah), an actress, writer, and heiress; and Richard M. Campion, a teacher, and theatre and opera director. She never set out to become a filmmaker, and instead decided to study anthropology at Victoria University. However, she still was drawn to the world of cinema. According to an Guardian article, “When she was a teenager, Campion says, she found solace in movies. “Film-makers were my companions and they helped me grow up. I was so inspired. Buñuel, Wenders, Cassavetes: they made me feel connected to the world.” Why did she feel disconnected? “I had no energy or direction.””

After university, she found herself going traveling which led to her making a dramatic change. Following time in Europe Campion ended up in Sydney, doing a diploma in arts. There she made her first film “Tissues”, which helped win her a place at the Australian School of Film, Radio and Television in the early 1980s.  “Tissues” was about a father who was arrested for child molestation, and the film featured a tissue in every scene. She may have just started her filming career, but Campion was already tackling tough subjects that many still considered taboo.

Jane Campion

At the start of her career, Campion was more focused on becoming a writer rather than a director. However, she quickly found that if she wanted to get her stories shown on the big screen then she would have to be the one to get behind the camera.  “I had these stories and there was no chance of getting anybody else to do them, so I had to become a director of my own work. I never thought I wanted to be a film director. I’m not actually ambitious per se in terms of a career; I’m just ambitious to achieve the stories and dramas that I’ve come up with.”

“I’m someone who loves to play. I make films so I can have fun with the characters.”

Her tutors apparently showed very little enthusiasm for her next short film, “Peel” (1982), which was followed a father along with his son and sister are taking a trip, during which an orange peel has significance. However, “Peel” went on to win the Short Film Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, making Campion the first ever woman to win the award. Campion would have further success at Cannes with her short films,  “Passionless Moments” and “A Girl’s Own Story” which were screened in the Un Certain Regard section. Partly in an effort to demonstrate she was employable, Campion directed 1986 telemovie “Two Friends”, a portrait of the complex friendship between two teenage girls, the film had been written by Australian novelist Helen Garner (best known for her novel “Monkey Grip”). “Two Friends” was also screened at Cannes.

Campion’s debut film “Sweetie” was released in 1989. The film follows the contentious and chaotic relationships among a woman in her twenties, her parents, and her emotionally unstable sister. The film starred Genevieve Lemon. Many of the cast and crew were new to features, including Campion’s film school collaborator Sally Bongers , who became the first woman in Australia to shoot a feature on 35mm film. Screened in competition at Cannes, the film was booed by some viewers and enthusiastically embraced by others. “Sweetie” provided the springboard to greater success the following year with “An Angel at My Table” (1990), a feature version of the 3-part mini-series made for New Zealand television.

“An Angel at My Table”, was Campion’s biopic of writer Janet Frame, and was adapted from the author’s three-part autobiography. NZ Film Commission marketing veteran Lindsay Shelton ultimately persuaded Campion that the mini-series might also be a film. It went on to win numerous awards, including second prize at the Venice Film Festival, where it received several standing ovations, and there were even yells of protest after it narrowly failed to take top prize. Guardian critic Derek Malcolm called it “one of the very best films of the year”; Variety found it “totally absorbing”, while The Sydney Morning Herald went for “visionary” and “deeply moving”. The breakout critical success established Jane Campion as a director to watch, and launched the career of lead actor Kerry Fox

Holly Hunter in The Piano (1993) | Photo Credit: IMDb

Her next film, “The Piano” (1993) marked the point where Campion truly found mainstream success. A brooding drama about 19th century colonists in the emotional scenery of the New Zealand forest and coastline, the film inspired rave reviews and box office success — especially in Europe, where it broke records in France for a foreign film. “The Piano” tells the story of a mute woman (played by Holly Hunter in an Oscar-winning role) and her young daughter arriving in 1850s New Zealand for an arranged marriage. The film attracted mainstream audiences in large numbers and drew universal and frequently rapturous critical approval. With it, Campion became the first female director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, sharing the prize with Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige for “Farewell My Concubine” (1993). “The Piano” cemented the reputations of both Campion and Chapman, and opened the door for both to acquire financial backing for future projects from French and other international sources.

Campion’s next project was an adaptation of Henry James classic “A Portrait of a Lady” (1996), starring Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich and Barbara Hershey. Campion felt that the book was “one of the most extraordinary written portraits of a woman”. She then collaborated with her sister Anna on escaping from a cult tale “Holy Smoke”, starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel. “Holy Smoke” (1999) received mixed reviews from critics. In his review, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 2 and a half stars out of 4. In his review, he wrote the following: “It’s a little surprising, although not boring, when it turns from a mystic travelogue into a feminist parable . . . Winslet and Keitel are both interesting in the film. A smaller picture like this, shot out of the mainstream, has a better chance of being quirky and original. And quirky it is, even if not successful”.

“One of the things we learn in movies directed by men is what the ‘fantasy woman’ is. What we learn in movies directed by women is what real women are about. I don’t think that men see things wrong and women right, just that we do see things differently.”

Campion’s next film was the 2003 psychological thriller film “In the Cut” which starred starring Meg RyanMark RuffaloJennifer Jason Leigh and Kevin Bacon. Campion’s screenplay is an adaptation of the 1995 novel of the same name by Susanna Moore. The film focuses on an English teacher who becomes personally entangled with a detective investigating a series of gruesome murders in her Manhattan neighborhood. Again, Campion’s film received mixed reviews from critics.

When asked about the mixed reception to “In The Cut” and whether she believed the critics got it wrong about the film, Campion responded with the following, “Yes, I did. What was really hard about that was that it was mostly reviewed by males, and they hated the female point of view and the way the women were talking about them as objects. Actually, I do think it is a good movie. There are certain women who tell me it’s one of their favourite films.” In the years since the film’s original release, “In the Cut” has been re-examined and praised as a feminist erotic thriller. Critics noted how Campion foregrounds female agency and pleasure, and subverts many tropes of the genre such as the femme fatale archetype and the male gaze.

Meg Ryan and Jennifer Jason Leigh in In the Cut (2003) | Photo Credit: IMDb

After “In The Cut” she took an enforced break from film-making, and in her own words “just wanted to be with my kid a bit more and spent four years being more of a mother”. Campion’s next feature film wasn’t released until 2009. “Bright Star”  which focuses on the poet John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) and his lover Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Campion found herself drawn to their story, as there was “Something about their purity and their innocence, the way that love was so confusing, so full of missteps and attachment. Everything they were experiencing they were doing in the best possible way. And suffering.”

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw gave the film four stars, finding it “almost certainly” the best of Campion’s career. Bradshaw wrote that this “heartfelt film has a nobility of its own; it draws you irresistibly into its world”. Veteran New York Times critic AO Scott added to the acclaim, calling Campion “one of modern cinema’s great explorers of female sexuality”. Scott argued that the film’s “passages of extraordinary lyricism” were “balanced by a rough, energetic worldliness”.

In early 2012 Campion began filming mini-series “Top of the Lake” in Queenstown and nearby Glenorchy. The acclaimed six-hour drama marked her first project on Kiwi soil since “The Piano”, two decades before. Campion wrote the script with Sweetie collaborator Gerard Lee and directed three of the episodes, alongside rising Australian talent Garth Davis. American actress Elisabeth Moss (best known for her work in the popular TV series “Mad Men” and “The Handsmaid Tale” as well staring in “The Invisible Man”) won a Golden Globe, as the detective investigating the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old. The cast also included David Wenham, Jay Ryan and Scot Peter Mullan. Campion was a triple Emmy-nominee, and the series won awards on both sides of the Tasman. The second series of “Top of the Lake” marked one of the first times a small screen production had debuted as part of the Cannes Film Festival programme. This time Campion shared directing duties with rising Australian director Ariel Kleiman.

Jane Campion at Cannes Film Festival | Photo Credit: IMDb

“I have no fear, I don’t think “Oh, this is going to flop, this is going to be horrible”, I just don’t even think about it. You just need one degree more inspiration than fear.”

Even though the women in Campion’s films often seem downtrodden victims who suffer at the hands of men, they are more than just victims. They are strong complex characters who decide to take on the world and question the social norms that they are being forced to accept. Campion also has the ability to create male characters such as Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill) in “The Piano” (1993) that are much more than one-dimensional figures of authority and oppression. The men in Campion’s films are often wrestling with the idea of masculinity and what can be seen as acceptable by society. When Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan received the Prix du Jury for his film “Mommy”, he said that Campion’s “The Piano”, “made me want to write roles for women—beautiful women with soul, will and strength, not victims or objects.” Campion responded by rising from her seat to give him a hug.

In 2021 Campion was named Best Director at the Venice Film Festival, for her first feature in over a decade: “The Power of the Dog”. The Netflix production began filming in Otago in early 2020, a few months before New Zealand went into Covid-19 lockdown. It is based on an acclaimed but little known Thomas Savage novel about two very different brothers, who own a ranch in Montana. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a man “who declares war on his brother’s new wife and her teenage son”. Kirsten Dunst co-stars. Both Cumberbatch and Dunst have received nominations in their retrospective acting categories. Among an impressive awards haul, the film was named Best Motion Picture at the BAFTA Awards and in the drama category of the Golden Globes, and Campion became the first woman to be nominated twice for Best Director at the Oscars. 

Campion told The Guardian in 2021 that making a film focusing on a man – Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank – and toxic masculinity, represented a big departure for her. She credits the #MeToo movement for giving her the freedom to do so. She stated the following, “#MeToo was such a powerful force that I think it opened up a whole different space to explore this kind of subject matter. It was like those women, young women mostly, had peeled away so many layers of the onion as regards masculinity, that it created a space for old warriors like myself to explore a very male story like this one.”

Jane Campion and Phil Jones in The Power of the Dog (2021) | Photo credit: IMDb

Jane Campion is a mentor for female filmmakers, and has mentored the likes of Julia Leigh, who directed “Sleeping Beauty” in 2011; and Christina Andreef who directed the film, “Soft Fruit” in 1999. In interviews promoting “The Power of the Dog”, she’s suggested this might be a free pop-up film school in New Zealand, supported by Netflix, to give people without wealthy parents a chance to become filmmakers, and allow students of any age a chance to further explore their creativity.

Whether or not, Campion wins best director at this year’s Oscars, she still remains on of the most inspirational and influential filmmakers out there. We personally can’t wait to see what she decides to do next and what wonders she has in store for us.


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