The world didn’t need Mark Ruffalo, star of Jane Campion’s 2003 film, In the Cut, to sing the writer/director’s praises. Given her resume, her work speaks for itself. Still, he explains, “There are very few filmmakers like her. Very few.” His statement applies to many aspects of the Sweetie, An Angel at My Table, The Piano and Top of the Lake helmer’s career — from her focus on women trying to escape restrictive boundaries to her trailblazing status as an acclaimed female filmmaker.
Campion’s impressive list of credits continues, with The Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke and Bright Star also to her name, and awards and nominations from Cannes, the Oscars and the Australian Film Institute (now the AACTAs) as well. If she stands out from the crowd, that’s by design. As she shared in an interview at the beginning of her career, “I’ve never known how to behave myself in the way people are supposed to.”
Before you dive into Vice’s exploration of Campion’s work and impact, we run through the New Zealand-born and raised filmmaker's career.
The Campion essentials
When Campion claimed the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted top prize in 1993, she made history. In the feature film field, The Piano’s Palme d’Or win made Campion the first and only female director to emerge victorious, an honour she still holds more than two decades later. But she had also been there and done that before, in a way. In the short film section, she had received the equivalent prize with her debut short, Peel, in 1986.
She might be known for telling tales of trapped women — trapped by others, their emotions, societal expectations and more — but Campion has repeatedly proved to be anything but. From debuting with a domestic drama about mental illness in Sweetie, and fashioning Janet Frame’s autobiographies into an intense and empathetic dramatisation of the author’s life in An Angel at My Table, to turning In the Cut’s serial killer thrills into a feminist look at power dynamics in relationships and taking on the TV crime genre with Top of the Lake, her resume is the clear work of a writer/director always willing to go her own way.
That applies not only to the themes Campion explores and the narratives she delves into, but to the visuals that accompany them. When The Piano saw her become the talk of the film industry — adding an Academy Award nomination for Best Director to her list of accolades and becoming only the second woman in history to do so at the time — it was as much for the movie’s tale of love and sex as it was the poetic images that helped bring it to life. In The Portrait of a Lady and Holy Smoke, the two features that followed, finding aesthetically inventive ways to convey stories of women breaking free of their confines proved crucial.
In the same fashion, In the Cut subsequently demonstrated Campion’s abilities with darker, more erotic material, while Bright Star found light and yearning in John Keats’ real-life 19th-century romance with Fanny Brawne. And among Top of the Lake’s many achievements across its two seasons, it acts as the perfect culmination of Campion’s talents, distinctive way of looking at the world and recurrent sources of fascination.
Three things you mightn’t know
- Among The Piano’s eight Oscar nominations, seven went to women — including the film’s wins for Best Actress (Holly Hunter), Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin) and Best Original Screenplay (Jane Campion).
- Campion’s daughter, actress and Top of the Lake season two star Alice Englert, made her on-screen debut in the filmmaker’s 2006 short, The Water Diary.
- Campion rarely works on films she doesn't direct herself, but among the exceptions to that rule, she acted as a script adviser on Somersault, and executive produced Soft Fruit, Alice Englert’s short Family Happiness and US-Qatar drama They.
Four films — and one TV series — you really need to see
Sweetie: Delving into family life but never telling a standard story, Campion’s first feature also marked her first feature in competition at Cannes — as co-written with her Top of the Lake collaborator Gerard Lee.
The Piano: The applauded drama oozes emotion as it tells of a mute Scotswoman’s new life in New Zealand, not only through its story and imagery, but courtesy of Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill’s performances.
In the Cut: While failing to strike a chord with audiences upon its release and receiving negative reviews, Campion's bold stride into the serial killer genre kept her own sensibilities in hand — and featured fantastic work from an against-type Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo.
Bright Star: Campion makes turning poetry into a movie seem easy in her emotionally and visually sumptuous take on John Keats’ life and romance with Fanny Brawne.
Top of the Lake: Co-created, -executive produced and –directed by Campion (helming with Lion’s Garth Davis and Partisan’s Ariel Kleiman), Top of the Lake fits seamlessly into her oeuvre with its strikingly shot account of a detective investigating two cases involving victimised or murdered girls.
Who’s sharing the Campion love?
Mark Ruffalo: Ruffalo’s work for Campion, as a detective tracking a murderer in In the Cut, almost didn’t come about. The two approached the character in different ways, but Campion was impressed by Ruffalo’s rawness.
Sam Taylor-Johnson: The director of Nowhere Boy and Fifty Shades of Grey considers Campion a role model. Upon the latter film’s release, Taylor-Johnson was interviewed by Campion for Interview.
Mark Bradshaw: First working on Campion’s short The Water Diary, the composer has scored everything she has made since — as well as non-Campion directed efforts Resistance and The Daughter.
Ben Whishaw: The English actor starred as John Keats in Campion’s Bright Star and also appeared in Alice Englert’s short Family Happiness.
Elisabeth Moss: The Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale actress stars in Campion’s Top of the Lake, relishing working with a director who’s “really willing to put her characters through the f***ing ringer”.
What should I watch next?
Watch Campion chat about two of her career highlights on SBS On Demand:
Watch The Vice Guide to Film XXX.