Jane Campion has always been a film artist who’s gone her own way. With a background in art, Campion soon came to realize that she could better express herself through the medium of film and created a series of short films, one of which, “Peel,” won the Short Film Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. In 1989, she segued into feature film direction with “Sweetie,” the first of eight features that she would direct over the next 32 years. Scroll down to see all eight Jane Campion movies ranked from worst to best.
She explored female sexuality in “In the Cut,” “Holy Smoke!,” “Portrait of a Lady” and, most famously in “The Piano,” where Holly Hunter’s character Ada consents to an erotic affair with a frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) which allows her to fulfill her long-repressed sexual desires. (That’s also a theme of Campion’s acclaimed 2013 TV miniseries “Top of the Lake.”) It’s only in the almost-chaste romance of “Bright Star” that Campion would appear to embrace traditional female roles, but even then Abbie Cornish’s Fanny has to take the lead in the romantic pursuit of poet John Keats. It is ironic then that Campion’s most-awarded film, 2021’s “The Power of the Dog,” focuses primarily on the damage that can be done by toxic masculinity. She took home the Oscar as Best Director for that Netflix movie.
To celebrate the work of this distinguished writer/director, let’s raise a glass to Campion by counting down, from worst to best, the eight films from her ever-growing filmography.
8. IN THE CUT (2003)
Writers: Jane Campion, Susannah Moore, based on Moore’s novel
Starring: Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kevin Bacon
Campion’s “In the Cut” marks one of those cases where a film artist applies herself to trashy genre material. Sometimes the result is glorious — Coppola’s adaptation of “The Godfather” being the gold standard, but more often than not, the filmmaker’s artistic sensibility clashes with the often crass demands of the genre, which is what occurred for many critics with Cameron’s work here. The murder-mystery involving a teacher (Meg Ryan) whose sexuality is reawakened by a police detective (Harvey Keitel) seemed to many critics at odds with Campion’s more austere style. However, in recent years, “In the Cut” has been reappraised by many as a feminist erotic thriller, subverting the genre by refusing to view its story through a male gaze.
7. HOLY SMOKE! (1999)
Writers: Anna Campion, Jane Campion
Starring: Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel, Julie Hamilton, Tim Robinson, Pam Grier
With a script co-written with her sister Anna, Campion takes on cult deprogramming in this comedy/drama that features Kate Winslet as Ruth, a 20-something Australian who falls under the spell of an Indian guru and must be rescued by her concerned parents. Back home, she meets famed American exit counselor P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel) who specializes in deprogramming members of cults, and the two, not surprisingly, clash. Campion delivers a light touch to the film’s early scenes, although the tone darkens when Ruth and P.J. confront one another, resulting in some reviews complaining about the last act’s preachy tone. Still, Campion’s direction of her cast, particularly with Winslet and Keitel, received widespread praise, an example yet again of her skill of working with actors that is a key quality of all of her films.
6. THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (1996)
Writer: Laura Jones, based on the novel by Henry James
Starring: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Martin Donovan, Shelley Duvall, Mary-Louise Parker, Shelley Winters, John Gielgud, Christian Bale, Richard E. Grant, Viggo Mortensen
Look at that cast! From Shelley Winters to Shelley Duvall, a who’s-who of mid-’90s stars gathered for Campion’s adaptation of the Henry James classic focusing on Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), a young heiress who is single, wealthy and independent. And she aims to stay that way. However, Madame Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey) plots to have the heiress marry her devious friend Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich) for her money. Despite mixed reviews, the film managed to garner awards attention, though it was largely limited to its acting and technical elements. Hershey’s performance and Janet Patterson’s costumes earned Oscar nominations, but Campion’s subtle direction was largely ignored.
5. AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (1990)
Writer: Laura Jones
Starring: Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Martyn Sanderson
Based on the three autobiographies by New Zealand writer Janet Frame, “An Angel at My Table” was originally conceived by Campion as a television miniseries. To cover the writer’s entire life, she has divided Frame’s experience into three separate acts: as a young girl (Alexia Keogh), Janet is a social misfit at school who quickly realizes that she has a gift for writing; as a young woman (Karen Fergusson), Janet’s social unease continues and results in her suffering her first panic attack; and finally as a woman (Kerry Fox) Janet is institutionalized and must undergo shock treatments before emerging stronger upon her release than she had ever been. The international acclaim showered on Campion for the quality of her direction of “An Angel at My Table” only cemented her growing reputation as a filmmaker to watch.
4. SWEETIE (1989)
Writers: Jane Campion, Gerard Lee
Starring: Geneviève Lemon, Karen Colston, Tom Lycos, Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry
Campion moved from making short films to directing features with her debut film “Sweetie,” an unusual story about a very dysfunctional family set in a suburban home in rural Australia. The tranquil life of the family living there — dad Gordon (Jon Darling), mom Flo (Dorothy Barry) and their sullen daughter Kay (Karen Colston) — is shattered with the return home of their entitled daughter Dawn (Geneviève Lemon), aka Sweetie, who harbors delusions of Hollywood stardom while being abusive to all those around her. Sweetie’s presence forces the family to come to the realization that they are four broken people who must learn to communicate with each other if they ever hope to survive. Campion directs “Sweetie” as if it’s the only film she would ever get a chance to make. From musical numbers to time-lapse photography of roots growing, she throws everything she has at us. It was a directorial tour de force that offered the promise of great things to come, a promise that Campion has certainly more than fulfilled.
3. BRIGHT STAR (2009)
Writer: Jane Campion
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Thomas Sangster
In “Bright Star,” Campion looks at the last three years in the life of poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) through his developing relationship with the gregarious Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). The flirtatious Fanny draws out the reserved English poet when he first agrees of give her poetry lessons, but feelings deepen, despite the warning of Fanny’s mother (Kerry Fox) that Keats will never marry her because he knows that he is too financially impoverished. The romance works in part because of the potent chemistry between Whishaw and Cornish and because of Campion’s delicate direction, probably the most quietly assured piece of direction in her career. In addition, Campion’s screenplay celebrates Keats in a way that brings to life not only the poet, but his work as well.
2. THE PIANO (1993)
Writer: Jane Campion
Starring: Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Kerry Walker, Geneviève Lemon
Campion won her first Academy Award for her original screenplay to “The Piano,” as well as becoming the first woman ever to receive the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter, who won an Oscar for her performance), is a silent Scottish woman who sails to New Zealand with her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin, who won one as well) in order to wed wealthy landowner Stewart (Sam Neill) but becomes much more attracted to his cohort, frontiersman George Baines (Harvey Keitel). George, who has adapted his way to those of the Māori people, offers Ada piano lessons in exchange for sexual favors, a proposal to which Ada finally agrees. Unlike some other films about sex, “The Piano” dares to take seriously the power of erotic passion in making sex truly meaningful, all from a woman’s perspective. It is truly a film for adults in the very best sense of the term. For “The Piano,” Campion was also nominated as Best Director by the Academy and the Directors Guild, in addition to winning the Writers Guild Award for Best Original Screenplay.
1. THE POWER OF THE DOG (2021)
Writer: Jane Campion, based on the novel by Thomas Savage
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons
It’s been a dozen years since Campion made “Bright Star” and 28 since her greatest triumph to date, “The Piano.” With “The Power of the Dog,” Campion may have reached a career high in this tale illustrating the destruction wrought by toxic masculinity. Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, Campion’s screenplay focuses on rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), who runs the family operation with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) in 1925 Montana. Despite his Ivy League education, Phil chooses to live as a rugged cowboy, disdaining all things un-masculine. He is particularly resentful of George’s new wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her lanky son Peter (Kody Smit-McPhee), whom he sees as interlopers. While his initial skirmishes are with the quiet Rose, it is Peter who soon takes center stage to upend Phil’s very being. The film’s ending packs such a wallop that you might be tempted to watch it again right away. Trust me; a second viewing will only deepen your admiration for Campion’s singular (and perhaps crowning) achievement.