Jane Campion is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers to emerge from Australasia. Her depiction of strong (usually female) lead characters rebelling against stereotypical roles has attracted singular praise, as have her storytelling techniques: original and striking visual compositions, a non-linear editing style and moments of narrative ambiguity.
After winning film festival glory with An Angel at My Table, Campion's dark romance The Piano proved a sizable hit in Europe, and she became the first woman director to win the top award at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is now listed in the US National Society of Film Critics' list of '100 Essential Films' of all time, joining classics like The Godfather and Casablanca.
Jane Campion was born in Wellington, daughter of theatre doyens Richard and Edith Campion (Jane would later act alongside Edith, in her sister Anna's film The Audition). After studying anthropology at Victoria University — having deciding against acting — she felt the need to travel. Following time in Europe Campion ended up in Sydney, doing a diploma in arts. There she made her first film Tissues, which helped win her a place at the Australian School of Film, Radio and Television in the early 1980s.
At the 1986 Cannes Film Festival in France, a duo of surreal and acclaimed film school shorts (Passionless Moments, A Girl's Own Story), screened in the Un Certain Regard section. Short film Peel (1982), a study of domestic discipline on a family road trip, took the top prize for best short film. Campion's AFTRS tutors had originally told her she shouldn't bother finishing it. Also screening at Cannes was tele-movie Two Friends, a portrait of the complex friendship between two teenage girls. It was written by Australian novelist Helen Garner (Monkey Grip).
Campion made her feature film debut with off-kilter genrebender Sweetie in 1989. Shot in Australia, the film follows two sisters, one unassuming, the other noisy, self-centred and damaged. Many of the cast and crew were new to features, including cinematographer Sally Bongers, who became the first woman in Australia to shoot a feature on 35mm film. Sweetie famously won both applause and walkouts when it debuted at Cannes.
An Angel at My Table, Campion's biopic of writer Janet Frame (1990) was originally produced as a television mini-series. The story was divided into three sections, adapted from the author's three-part autobiography. NZ Film Commission marketing veteran Lindsay Shelton ultimately persuaded Campion that Angel might also be a film. It went on to win numerous awards, including second prize at the Venice Film Festival, where it won lavish praise, extended standing ovations, and yells of protest after it narrowly failed to take top prize. Guardian critic Derek Malcolm called it "one of the very best films of the year"; Variety found it "totally absorbing", while The Sydney Morning Herald went for "visionary" and "deeply moving". The breakout critical success established Jane Campion as a director to watch, and launched the career of lead actor Kerry Fox.
The Piano (1993) marked the point where Campion found mainstream success. A brooding drama about 19th century colonists in the emotional scenery of the New Zealand forest and coastline, the film inspired further rave reviews and international box office success — especially in Europe, where it broke records in France for a foreign film (ironic, considering the US $7 million movie was funded by a French industrial magnate).
Campion became the first woman director to win the award for Best Feature at Cannes (she shared the Palme d'Or with Chinese entry Farewell My Concubine) — and only the second woman nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards. The Piano scored Oscars for actors Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, and for Campion's screenplay.
Campion subsequently directed Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich and Barbara Hershey in an adaptation of Henry James classic A Portrait of a Lady. She was attracted to the project because she felt the book was "one of the most extraordinary written portraits of a woman". Next she collaborated with her sister Anna on escaping from a cult tale Holy Smoke, starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel. Reviews for both films crossed the gamut.
Campion has won praise for an allusive style: leveraging ambiguity, and hinting at what is unseen or unsaid in an scene. Her romance is often romance with a rotten apple. In the Cut (2003) is a darkly erotic exploration of the relationship between a hardened cop (Mark Ruffalo) and a withdrawn writing professor (Meg Ryan). It also got a polarised reception, with the LA Times wondering whether it might be the most imperfect "great movie of the year ... unquestionably the most ambitious and important film to come along in months ...".
After contributing drought tale The Water Baby to anthology movie 8, Campion debuted her next feature in 2009. Written and directed by Campion, Bright Star portrayed poet John Keats' ill-fated romance with neighbour Fanny Brawne. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw gave it four stars, finding it "almost certainly" the best of Campion's career. Bradshaw wrote that this "heartfelt film has a nobility of its own; it draws you irresistibly into its world".
When Bright Star opened in America in September 2009, veteran New York Times critic AO Scott added to the acclaim, calling her "one of modern cinema's great explorers of female sexuality". Scott argued that the film's “passages of extraordinary lyricism" were "balanced by a rough, energetic worldliness".
In early 2012 Campion began filming mini-series Top of the Lake in Queenstown and nearby Glenorchy. The acclaimed six-hour drama marked her first project on Kiwi soil since The Piano, two decades before. Campion wrote the script with Sweetie collaborator Gerard Lee and directed three of the episodes, alongside rising Australian talent Garth Davis (Lion). American Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) won a Golden Globe, as the detective investigating the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old. The cast also included David Wenham, Kiwi Jay Ryan (Go Girls) and Scot Peter Mullan (My Name is Joe). Campion was a triple Emmy-nominee, and the series won awards on both sides of the Tasman.
The second series of Top of the Lake marked one of the first times a small screen production had debuted as part of the Cannes Film Festival programme. This time Campion shared directing duties with rising Australian director Ariel Kleiman (Partisan). Set in Sydney and Hong Kong, it featured some scenes in Queenstown.
In early 2020 Campion began filming The Power of the Dog in Otago. It is adapted from the Thomas Savage novel about two very different brothers, who own a ranch in Montana. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a man "who declares war on his brother's new wife and her teenage son". Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons (TV series Fargo) co-star.
Back in 2013, Campion was presented with a prestigious New Zealand Arts Foundaton Laureate Award. Earlier that year she was awarded the Carrosse d'Or at Cannes, given by the French Film Directors' Society to recognise "innovative qualities, courage and independent-mindedness in directing". In 2016 she became a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Campion is the subject of at least seven books, including 1999's Jane Campion: Interviews — plus a collection of writings on The Piano, compiled by Harriet Margolis.
Profile updated on 13 January 2019
Jane Campion, 'In search of Janet Frame' - The Guardian, 19 January 2008
Peter Bradshaw, 'Cannes film festival review: Bright Star is Jane Campion at her best' (Review) - The Guardian, 15 May 2009
Peter Bradshaw, 'Bright Star' (Review) - The Guardian, 5 November 2009
Roger Ebert, 'The Piano' (Review). Roger Ebert website. First published November 19 1993. Accessed 13 January 2020
Justin Kroll, 'Benedict Cumberbatch, Elisabeth Moss to Star in Jane Campion's New Film (EXCLUSIVE)' - Variety, 6 May 2019
Ian Pryor, 'Piano lessons' (Interview) - Onfilm, October 1993
AO Scott, 'Keats and his Beloved in an Ode to Hot English Chastity' (Review of Bright Star) - The New York Times, 15 September 2009
Jane Campion: Interviews. Editor Virginia Wright Wexman (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999)
New Zealand Movie Wins Eight Awards - NZfilm No 41, October 1991, page 2
'Sundance Channel signs on to co-produce Jane Campion's Top of the Lake' (Press Release - broken link). BBC Worldwide website. Loaded 4 November 2011. Accessed 11 November 2011
Australian Associated Press writer, 'Jane Campion gets top award at Cannes' (Broken link) - The NZ Herald, 14 May 2013