Jane Campion: Trailblazer, Feminist, Filmmaker

By Jenny Cooney

Nearly three decades ago, New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Director for The Piano. This year, she returned to win the Golden Globe for Best Director for her 1920s frontier story The Power of the Dog, which won The Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama.

Since the tense western premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and won Campion the festival’s coveted Silver Lion award, she has been dominating the awards season. That’s not new for a woman who has been breaking barriers and marching to her own drum for most of her career.

In addition to being the first woman to receive the Palme d’Or (for The Piano) at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993, she’s also now the first woman to be nominated twice for the Academy Award for Best Director. Before that, she’d already joined an elite group of only six other women in the Academy’s 94-year-old history to be nominated at all in that category: Lina Wertmüller (1976 – Seven Beauties), Sofia Coppola (2003 – Lost in Translation), Kathryn Bigelow (2009 – The Hurt Locker), Greta Gerwig (2017 – Lady Bird), Emerald Fennell (2020 – Promising Young Woman), and Chloé Zhao(2020 – Nomadland).

Revered by actors, adored by filmmakers and film students, and hailed by women as a feminist force in Hollywood, Campion initially tries to shrug off such compliments in typically humble style. “To me, I think the girls are doing very well,” she said at a Venice Film Festival press conference. “A woman just won the Academy Award, Chloé Zhou (for Nomadland). Then, last year at Venice, (French filmmaker Audrey Diwan for The Happening). Then, this year, at Cannes (French filmmaker Julia Ducournau winning the Palme’ d’Or for Titane). Once you give them a chance, there is not going to be much stopping them.”

Eventually, the modest director admits she has pride in knowing she has inspired the filmmakers who’ve come after her. “I know that the statistics are not in favor of women. There are still fewer women,” she says. “The great loss for everyone is that there’s just not enough feminine voice and narrative describing our worlds, who we are. We come to believe that all of us are a patriarchy when, actually, that’s not the case.”

“Women do think differently. We have seen it a lot more on television because women are really dominating that field and sharing really unique and edgy views,” she states, “but all I can say since the #MeToo movement happened is that I feel a change in the weather that’s absolutely substantial – like the Berlin Wall coming down or the end of Apartheid. Except this time, it’s for us, women.”

Born in Wellington, New Zealand to parents well acquainted with the entertainment business (her father was a theatre director and her mother an actress), Campion displayed an early interest in art and acting but opted instead to get a BA in anthropology at Wellington’s Victoria University. She later studied art in Venice and enrolled briefly in a London art school where she made her first short film, Tissues, about a father arrested for child molestation.

She moved to Australia and studied painting at the Sydney College of the Arts before attending the prestigious Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), where she completed two short films: Peel (1982), Passionless Moments (1984), and her thesis film, A Girl’s Own Story (1984), which explored women’s sexuality and rites of passage.

After making her feature debut with the darkly stylish drama Sweetie (1989), and after featuring a shy, plain woman as the central character in her second feature, An Angel at My Table (1990), Campion quickly became a filmmaking force of nature. She began attracting A-list actresses to her projects, including Golden Globes Winner Holly Hunter (The Piano), Golden Globe Winner Kate Winslet (Holy Smoke), Golden Globe Nominee Meg Ryan (In the Cut), Golden Globe Winner Nicole Kidman (The Portrait of a Lady), Abbie Cornish (Bright Star) and Golden Globe Winner Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake). She took a 12-year break from making films between Bright Star and The Power of the Dog to focus on her award-winning TV limited series Top of the Lake and the follow-up, Top of the Lake: China Girlwhich earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Miniseries and a Golden Globe win for Moss as Best Actress in a TV Miniseries.

The Power of the Dog leading lady, Golden Globe Nominee Kirsten Dunst, said at a press meeting that she is not surprised Campion attracts the world’s top actresses. “There’s a sensitivity and a rawness to her characters,” she continues. “As a female watching her female characters over the years, they all feel like real women to me and the kind of acting and the kind of actors and the kind of performances that I aspire to as an actress.”

Based on the 1967 Thomas Savage novel of the same, The Power of the Dog tells the story of Phil Burbank (Golden Globe Nominee Benedict Cumberbatch), a rancher in 1920s Montana who resents his brother’s (Jesse Plemons) new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Golden Globe Winner Kodi Smit-McPhee), tormenting them to unbearable lengths when they move into the family home.

The film’s producer, Tanya Seghatchian, said that she credits Campion’s fearlessness as a key to her success. “She really understands desire and encourages you to lean into it and explore it and embrace sensuality, sexuality, yearning, and the kind of emotions that are often hidden,” she adds. “She finds a way of expressing them both in the script and in the visual language of the film. The cast, when they come in, are able to embrace that and feel emboldened by it, rather than shy about expressing it.” 

Benedict Cumberbatch is full of reverence and affection as he talks about Campion. “When you meet Jane, you have all the baggage of her iconic status in cinema and the weight of that but then who walks in the room is this delightful human being who is collaborative and frail and as interesting and humorous as the rest of us,” he said during his own Toronto Film Festival press conference for the film. “And still, there is just this underlying alchemy that she doesn’t let on too much, because she is very modest, but it affects everyone. Not just in the film,” he added. “You see it with the crew and how hard they work to make it the best possible shoot. That admiration comes from pure respect and who she is as a human being and her artistry.”

Golden Globe Winner Nicole Kidman first met the Australian-based New Zealander at age 16, when she auditioned for her short film being made at AFTRS. She got cast, but her mother made her pull out to focus on school. Campion, prophetically, sent her a note saying she hoped they’d work together one day. Kidman starred in the1996 period drama The Portrait of a Lady. She also appeared in a supporting role in the 2017 second season of Top of the Lake: China Girl, so she could work again with her close friend.

“I feel very comfortable around her just because our lives have connected and intertwined for many years. We know so much about each other and that’s just a wonderful thing to have. I also think the way Jane views the world is so unique,” Kidman told the HFPA on the Sydney set of that limited series, close to where both Kidman and Campion have homes. “Obviously, you see that from the stories that she tells. They’re really compelling and have a hypnotic quality to them, but there’s also just an ease at finding truth and characters around her, which is a beautiful place to start.”


Image: Getty Images