Jane Campion’s latest directorial effort, her first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star, was the opening film of the New Zealand International Film Festival but it gained a cinematic release while the festival was underway so I went to see it just afterwards. It’s a film that doesn’t reveal its hand until fairly late in the piece, a classic slow burn story, and even by the end there’s still plenty of mystery to the characters, but that makes it all the more compelling in my opinion.
I am aware that this film isn’t for everyone, and honestly I approach this as someone who is not a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor or of Campion’s work this past decade (chiefly on Top of the Lake, though I adore all of her feature films). That said I feel there’s enough here that’s resonant and special, especially within the context of modern film production and certainly among films commissioned by Netflix. This is mostly a film of atmosphere and setting — narratively Montana, but it’s filmed in New Zealand, and I think that’s going to be fairly clear to anyone who’s from either of those places. It’s essentially a two-hander between Cumberbatch’s grizzled older rancher Phil and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, the son of Kirsten’s Dunst’s Rose (who marries Phil’s brother George, played by a doughy-cheeked Jesse Plemons).
There’s a subtle but unavoidable underlying homoerotic tension throughout the film — which mostly comes out within the screenplay as talk about Phil’s now-departed mentor Bronco Harry, but is also clear in some of the loving close-ups that really I can’t explain here but are evident when you see the film — and I think it starts to become clear that Phil has a lot of the same background as Peter. Indeed, he is in a sense a version of the latter, albeit one who has actively remoulded himself to meet the expectations of his era, of his surroundings and of his peers into a more ‘manly’ man. Some of the dramatic moves don’t quite work to my mind — especially the way in which Phil and Peter at one point start to become friendly — but there’s an underlying power to their scenes that has almost a classical tragic resonance as the power balance between the two starts to shift throughout the film. And while nothing much outwardly seems to happen, it’s clear that this subtly sketched yet evident mental struggle between the older and younger men starts to consume both their lives.
Director/Writer Jane Campion (based on the novel by Thomas Savage); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Thomasin McKenzie; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 25 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Friday 24 December 2021.
I think it’s easy to take against a lot of what is most distinctive and interesting about this early feature by Jane Campion, but I find it compelling. It’s about the blandness and conformity of suburban lives in a way, set in an Australia that could as easily be the 1950s as the present, and revolves around a character called Kay, an office worker whose life outwardly just seems to be a black hole. The actor who plays her (Karen Colston) has a compelling face and even a charismatic screen presence, but the details of Kay’s life just seem to drain energy from around her, as she sucks in the gormless Louis (Tom Lycos) and then pushes him away bit by bit through her phobias and hang-ups. And this is when her sister Dawn, nicknamed Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon), bounds into her life and her home and seems to cause destruction and alienation all around her, as first their parents split up and then she starts to go after Louis, although she has her own boyfriend/hanger-on/”producer” Bob (Michael Lake). I think in a lesser film Sweetie would be the kind of force for change that prompts the other characters to discover themselves, but here her own mental difficulties and acting out hardly seems too divorced from that of her sister. The visual style breaks their world down into close-ups and breaks it up with humorous cutaways that suggest a fundamental absurdity to suburban Australian life.
- The main extras are three of Campion’s early short films, starting with An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1982), which with a paucity of camera flourishes marks out a distinctive vision, even if the story it tells — of a young boy throwing peel out of a car window, and being disciplined by his dad — is fairly slight. Given how dislikeable all three of the characters are (there’s also the dad’s sister, I think), it’s still pretty watchable. Her next is Passionless Moments (1983), a series of little black-and-white vignettes of ordinary suburban banality, of the sort that probably all of us have been through at some point, but presented as fascinating insights into the human animal. It’s all very carefully framed and nicely directed, with a droll anthropological voiceover that only heightens the likeable absurdity. Finally there’s A Girl’s Own Story (1984), which feels like Campion really finding her voice and dealing with the themes that she would pursue throughout her feature film career. Here these include a coming of age in a period setting (1960s girls’ school), but probing into darker psychosexual corners with the dysfunctional parental relationship. There are a number of young women at the centre of the tale, who all seem to be lacking in proper adult guidance and find themselves in various forms of trouble as a result, with little support from their peers. It looks great in grainy black-and-white, and is filled with striking shots that are all laden with perils of this well-worn genre.
- There’s a 22 minute interview from several decades later with its two stars, Lemon and Colston, sitting on a sofa reflecting on making the film, their camaraderie on set and their own lasting friendship, as well as the lack of opportunities it generally led to (unlike some more noted Australian films of subsequent years).
- Another 20 minute piece from the AFTRS (Australian Film, Television and Radio School, where Jane Campion was a student) has Campion speaking to a critic about her early works, particularly the three short films included on this disc, on which she made her name.
- There is a gallery of striking and distinctive production photographs showing the making the film.
- Plus, of course, there is a trailer for the film, which captures a little of the distinctive flavour although obviously it has degraded somewhat more than the film itself.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writers Campion and Gerard Lee; Cinematographer Sally Bongers; Starring Karen Colston, Geneviève Lemon, Tom Lycos, Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 24 August 2020 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000).
Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.
- The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
- There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
- There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).