Australian director and screenwriter Jane Campion (born 1954) created a number of films with strong female protagonists starting in the late 1980s. Among the best known of her works was the Academy-award-winning film The Piano (1993).
Campion was born on April 30, 1954, in Wellington, New Zealand, the daughter of Richard Campion and Edith Armstrong. Her father was a theater director and her mother was an actress. They had met when both were students at the Old Vic in England. Together, they co-founded the New Zealand Players. Campion was raised in Wellington, with her older sister, Anna, with whom she would later collaborate, and her younger brother, Michael.
While Campion was interested in acting, she did not immediately follow the family tradition. Instead, she attended Victoria University in Wellington and earned a bachelor's degree in structural anthropology. She then went to Europe where she studied art in Venice, among other places. Eventually, she went to London where she worked as an assistant for a filmmaker who did documentaries and commercials. She also studied at the Chelsea School of Arts in London.
Became Interested in Film
Campion finished her diploma in art at the Sydney College of Arts in Sydney, Australia. She majored in painting and sculpting, but she discovered her true calling during her last year at the college, when she began making super-8 films. Her first short film, Tissues (1980), got her into film school.
In 1981, Campion entered the Australian Film Television and Radio School. There, she made three significant short films. She was the director, writer, and editor of Peel (1982), which focused on a power struggle over discipline between a father and a son. In 1984, she made Passionless Moments and Girl's Own Story, the latter focusing on brother-sister incest.
After graduating from the school in 1984, Campion spent several years working with the government-funded Women's Film Unit. She wrote and directed After Hours (1984) a film about sexual harassment. Campion then moved into television. She directed an episode of the series Dancing Daze. In 1985, she directed her first television movie, Two Friends, which was released theatrically in the United States in 1996. The film focused on a female friendship and how it changed over time and was told in reverse chronological order.
In 1986, Campion won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for best short film for Peel, garnering her much attention. She then began working on the script, with former boyfriend Gerald Lee, for what became her first feature film, Sweetie. The disturbing black comedy was released in 1989 and won several prizes.
Sweetie focuses on a dysfunctional family. The movie tells the story of Kay, a shy woman who is engaged to Louis but cannot enjoy life. Her already sad world is turned upside down when her sister, Dawn, also known as Sweetie, enters her life again. Dawn is obese, mentally unstable, and uncontrollable, and she was doted on by her parents her whole life. Dawn was led to believe that she was bound for show business since childhood, and her actions and needs take over her entire family and the movie.
Audiences and critics often had extreme reactions to Sweetie, positive and negative. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote: "It is funny, though one doesn't often laugh at it, and sad, without ever asking for tears. Instead, it demands that it be taken on its own spare terms without regard to the sentimental conventions of other movies. At its best, it is audaciously unreasonable."
In 1990, Campion directed her second feature, originally made for New Zealand television as a miniseries. It was Angel at My Table, a movie about author Janet Frame adapted from her autobiography. The film had a dreamy, slow quality and focused on how men controlled, betrayed, and condemned Frame.
Angel at My Table depicts all of Frame's tragic life. After a difficult childhood, Frame worked briefly as a teacher before having a nervous breakdown. She was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and forced to live in a mental institution for eight years. After receiving hundreds of electroshock treatments, Frame was nearly lobotomized until a doctor discovered that she had won a literary prize for poetry. Frame left the institution and eventually found her calling as a writer.
Though Angel at My Table received mixed reviews in the United States, it was generally liked. The film won a number of prizes, including the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. In many ways, this was Campion's breakthrough film, setting the stage for her biggest artistic triumph, The Piano (1993).
Acclaimed for The Piano
Though The Piano began with some development money from the Australian Film Commission, the film was Campion's first big-budget production, financed with French money. Campion had been working on the script since 1984, and she had long wanted to do a story about the colonial days of New Zealand.
Set in 1850, The Piano focuses on a mute Scottish woman named Ada, who does not speak only because she chooses not to. Her only means of communication is her piano. She has an illegitimate, young daughter, who is just as free-spirited as her mother. Ada enters into an arranged marriage with a New Zealander and moves to that country. Her new husband, Stewart, is a farmer who will not take the piano to their new home. He sells it to a man, Baines, who lives with the natives. Baines offers to give the piano back to Ada if she teaches him to play. Ada and Baines eventually become lovers, and after several plot turns, Ada leaves her husband for him.
The Piano was a huge international hit. It won numerous awards, including the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Campion was the first female director to win that award. She was also nominated for the Academy Award for best director.
Campion was developing a solid reputation as a film director. Actor Sam Neill, who played Stewart, told Mary Cantwell of the New York Times Magazine, "Jane works in an unusually intimate way with people. When you're an actor, you're always putting yourself in other people's hands anyway, and she repays the gesture many times over. Jane's interested in complexity, not reductiveness, and very sure of what she's doing. If you have an opinion contrary to hers, she listens with the greatest care and consideration, then does what she had in mind all along."
The same year that The Piano was released, Campion formed a production company, Big Shell Films, with her producer-director husband Colin Englert. Also that year, the couple had a son, Jasper, who died 12 days after birth. In 1994, their daughter Alice was born.
Campion's films after The Piano could not match its success. In 1996, she directed an adaptation of Henry James' novel The Portrait of a Lady. The story focuses on Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman), an American expatriate who lets her potential die and enters into an unhappy marriage with Gilbert Osmond. Reviews of the film were mixed and box office returns paltry.
In 1999, Campion directed and co-wrote, with her sister Anna, Holy Smoke, a contemporary story about religion, cults, and male-female relationships. The plot focuses on Ruth Barroon, a young woman from the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, who joins a religious cult in India to find enlightenment and spirituality. Ruth returns to her home after a desperate visit by her mother. When she comes home, she finds that her family has tricked her and hired a deprogammer, J.P. Waters, to force her out of the cult. Ruth ends up manipulating Waters, and the pair become lovers.
While many critics praised the themes of the movie, the script was seen as conventional and obvious. As Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, "as Holy Smoke moves from its early mix of rapture and humor into this more serious, confrontational stage, it runs into trouble. For one thing, the characters as written are an impressionable young woman and a tough older man… . And it doesn't help that the screenplay … threatens to become heavy-handedly ideological beneath its outward whimsy."
Campion's next movie was a Hollywood production. In 2002, she adapted the best-selling novel, In the Cut. Her first film set in the United States, In the Cut is an erotic thriller focused on a female linguist who falls in love with a cop who is investigating a serial killer. Originally, In the Cut was supposed to star Kidman, but she was replaced by Meg Ryan. Campion encountered problem when Miramax dropped the film, but it was scheduled for distribution in 2003.
Throughout her career, Campion was generally regarded as an important original female voice who depicted strong women characters. As Jay Carr of the Boston Globe wrote in 1999, "With her embrace of the bizarre and the private, Jane Campion has become film's poet of the human interior. It's not so much her way of focusing on the suppressed voices of women that marks her art. Rather, it's her stubborn belief that these voices will be heard, sooner or later, one way or another…. Campion's films are genuflections to the staying power of powerless woman."
Pendergast, Tom, and Sara Pendergast, eds., International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-2: Directors, St. James Press, 2000.
Associated Press, January 24, 1990.
Boston Globe, June 14, 1991; February 3, 1999.
Film Comment, November-December 1996.
New York Times, October 6, 1989; January 14, 1990; September 19, 1993; December 3, 1999.
Toronto Star, February 25, 2000.
United Press International, 1989.
Vancouver Sun, February 15, 2000.
Variety, May 21, 2001.
Village Voice, November 30, 1999.
Washington Post, June 21, 1991.
Washington Times, February 12, 2000.
"In the Cut," Yahoo! Movies, http://movies.yahoo.com/shop?d=hp&=prev&=1809404536 (February 9, 2003).