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Roger's Favorites: Jane Campion

In "Roger's Favorites," we highlight the filmmakers and actors that Roger championed throughout his career. A table of contents for all of our "Roger's Favorites" posts can be found here. Below is an entry on the cinema of Jane Campion


"Strange" and "challenging" are words that often pop up in Roger's reviews of Jane Campion's films, a positive characteristic for a filmmaking vision that has remained singular from her 1990 debut "Sweetie" to her most recent movie, 2009's "Bright Star." Campion is a New Zealand filmmaker who won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986 for her short film "Peel," and is the second of four women to have been nominated for the Oscar of Best Director. She recently co-created and co-wrote the series "Top of the Lake," starring Elisabeth Moss

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Campion's bizarre family drama "Sweetie" was a fitting introduction for Roger to Campion's work, a film that came together much better when he saw it a second time. As he states in his three-and-a-half star review from March 23, 1990: "I imagine most people will have a hard time with 'Sweetie,' simply because I did the first time. But this movie is real, it's the genuine article, and it's there on the screen in all of its defiant strangeness. Most movies slide right through our minds without hitting anything. This one screams and shouts every step of the way." The word "strange" pops up twice as he writes about the film's appearance, such as the "compositions and color sense [that] give everything a sensation of heightened reality, or unreality." But his review has a base of admiration, as he states with clarity that "['Sweetie'] is a story with a realistic origin, told with a fresh and bold eye." 

"An Angel at My Table," Campion's 1991 followup about one of New Zealand's most popular authors, maintained Campion's unusual air but connected to Roger much more immediately than "Sweetie." In a four-star review published on June 21, 1991, the critic wrote: "Campion's 'An Angel at My Table' tells [Janet Frame's] story in a way that I found strangely engrossing from beginning to end." His slow responsiveness to "Sweetie" even hangs over Roger in the coda of this review, in which he favorably compares to this new film's experience to Campion's debut: "['An Angel at My Table'] is told with a clarity and simplicity that is quietly but completely absorbing. Yes, it is visually beautiful, and, yes, it is well-acted, but it doesn't call attention to its qualities. It tells its story calmly and with great attention to human detail and, watching it, I found myself drawn in with a rare intensity."

Roger's fascination with Campion was ignited by "The Piano," an Oscar-winning film she wrote and directed. The opening words in his four-star review (published November 19, 1993) say a great deal: "'The Piano' is as peculiar and haunting as any film I've seen." After raving about the original performances, and the way in which Campion's understanding of the story's eroticism had a refreshing non-male touch, he wrote: "['The Piano'] is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling—of how people can be shut off from each other, lonely and afraid, about how help can come from unexpected sources, and about how you'll never know if you never ask." This film also caused Roger to clarify something about Campion, which would arguably be tested in her following features: "Campion has never made an uninteresting or unchallenging film." 

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Campion's adaptation of Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady" perhaps brought a different challenge, especially as Roger was familiar with the original source material. In a three-star review published January 17, 1997, Roger prefaced the film, starring Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich, was for fans only: "You can't easily understand this film if you haven't. Too much is left out, glossed over, or implied." He later adds: "Yet I think if you care for James, you must see it. It is not an adaptation but an interpretation. It gives us Isabel from a new angle. And it is well acted." 

Roger seemed less actively challenged by Campion's next two films, "Holy Smoke" and "In the Cut," which brought in specific feminist angles. In a two-and-a-half star review published on February 11, 2000, Roger wrote that with her cult deprogrammer/gender battle movie, "'Holy Smoke' reins in the strangeness a little," and that it's "quirky, even if not successful." He gave the same star rating when reviewing Campion's feminist slasher thriller "In the Cut," as reviewed on October 31, 2003. The genre-jumping prompted Roger to make a comparison to other directors that he liked, but had also fallen short recently: "'In the Cut' reminds me a little of the Coen Brothers' new film 'Intolerable Cruelty.' Here are two genre movies, a slasher thriller and a screwball comedy, made by assuredly great directors, but both movies are too hip for the room. It is possible to transcend genres, but I think you have to go through them, not around them." 

Campion's most recent film, 2009's John Keats & Fanny Brawne romance "Bright Star," brought the critic back to a more immediate enthusiasm about her work. An outspoken fan of Keats' poetry, he was excited about how Campion brought his poetry to cinematic life with the type of creativity her authorship has always promised. In a three-and-a-half star review published on September 23, 2009: "What Campion does is seek visual beauty to match Keats' verbal beauty. There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description," Roger praised. Excited by how "Bright Star" ultimately challenged the truth that "it is famously impossible for the act of writing to be made cinematic," Roger said Campion's film was "beautiful, wistful." 

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