Complex, strong women
One of the most intriguing elements running through Campion’s work is how her portraits of women in distress or under duress are never simply the case of downtrodden female victims being brutalised or oppressed by uncaring men and family members. The overwhelming majority of her heroines are complex, flawed individuals whose strivings to discover and express their individuality put them at odds with the world around them.
On the flip side of this very equation is Campion’s ability to create male characters such as Waters in Holy Smoke (1999) and Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill) in The Piano (1993) that are much more than one-dimensional figures of authority and oppression; they are fascinating men struggling to comprehend and accept what goes on in a woman’s mind.
Campion’s exploration of female consciousness was very boldly expressed in In the Cut (2003), an adaptation of Susanna Moore’s psychosexual thriller starring Meg Ryan as Frannie Avery, a New York literary professor involved in a murder mystery and engaged in a torrid affair with rough-trade cop James Malloy (Mark Ruffalo). As close as Campion has come to making a mainstream contemporary genre film, it retains her distinct focus on female desire.
Following the mixed reception to In the Cut (2003), Campion directed a segment for the omnibus project To Each His Own (2007), and made the short film The Water Diary (2006) before returning to features with Bright Star (2009), a chronicle of the love affair between tragic romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his neighbour, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
Containing some of the most ravishing images in any Campion film, Bright Star again deviates significantly from conventional biographies and period pieces. By showing the commonplace aspects of early nineteenth century English life and choosing not to indulge in staples such as the deathbed scene featured in almost every movie about an artist who died young, Campion creates a highly realistic and deeply moving portrait of a man and woman whose aching desire for each other is ultimately no match for the social and economic realities of the world into which they are born.
As with much of her work, Bright Star attracted widespread critical acclaim but its deliberately measured tempo and refusal to press easy and familiar emotional buttons restricted its wider commercial appeal. This is one of the defining characteristics of Jane Campion’s work: the surface look of a traditional thriller, love story, domestic drama, biography or adaptation of a literary classic that takes the long way around the psyche of its central characters and dares to detour into unexpected and highly stimulating territory that will not always meet with universal appeal.
Jane Campion is a mentor for female filmmakers (including Julia Leigh: Sleeping Beauty, 2011; and Christina Andreef: Soft Fruit, 1999) and has become a filmmaker whose new work qualifies as an ‘event picture’ by the very opposite criteria applied to Hollywood blockbusters.
In 2013 she co-directed (with Garth Davis) Top of the Lake, an internationally financed TV mini-series filmed in New Zealand. A second season of the limited series, filmed in Sydney, followed in 2017. Both seasons star Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin. Griffin is a typically complex and compelling Campion heroine, a detective investigating the disappearance of young women.
The first season marked a reunion with Campion’s Sweetie (1989) and Passionless Moments (1983) co-writer Gerard Lee, and The Piano’s (1993) Holly Hunter. For the second season, Campion reunited with her Portrait of a Lady star, Nicole Kidman. Gerard Lee returned as co-writer, with Ariel Kleiman sharing directing duties with Campion.
This portrait article originally appeared on australianscreen online.