All 8 Jane Campion Films, Ranked
We're assessing every one of her feature films, from the recent Oscar-nominated hit 'The Power of the Dog' to her early, indie work.
In her more than three decades of making films, Jane Campion has occupied a number of roles within the entertainment industry. She's been a Cannes-celebrated young upstart out of New Zealand, an Oscar winner, and a panned Hollywood pariah, mainly because she dared to make a movie where Meg Ryan was a sexual being. (More on In the Cut later.) Now, she comes into the 2022 Oscars—where her film The Power of the Dog is a Best Picture front-runner and she the likely Best Director winner—as an elder stateswoman whose pioneering work is finally being wholly praised.
As this awards season trudges on, Campion has been in the public eye more than ever. In the span of a single weekend, she won widespread internet praise when she shot down Sam Elliott's homophobic reading of her film, followed by swift condemnation when she compared herself to the Williams sisters during her acceptance speech at the Critics Choice Awards. (She has since apologized for her "thoughtless" comments.)
But while the march of an Oscar campaign can distill a figure into their best or worst comments on the trail, we wanted to take time to look holistically at Campion's oeuvre. Though best known for her period pieces like Power of the Dog and The Piano, she's also made strangely funny comedies and intense erotic thrillers. She's a director who is particularly attuned to sexual dynamics, her distinctly female perspective permeating her lens, even when trained on characters performing masculinity.
8. The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
On the surface, The Portrait of a Lady is exactly what you’d expect from a film that recalls Golden Age Hollywood's era of "women’s pictures," movies made for the softer whims of a female audience: a lady protagonist caught between a number of lovers, opulent period-appropriate costumes, breathtaking Italian landscapes, someone inevitably dying from "the consumption." But because it's Jane Campion adapting novelist Henry James—both of whom are artists preoccupied with humanity's darker urges—it's much more than that. Nicole Kidman and Nicole Kidman's frizzy up-do star as Isabel Archer, a beautiful single woman who has spurned a number of suitors, whose independence and wealth draw the attention of American expatriate Madame Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey), who is determined to set Isabel up with her former lover (John Malkovich). Love triangles, 11th-hour biological parent reveals, and multiple face slaps ensue. —Emma Stefansky
7. An Angel at My Table (1990)
Campion's second feature film further established her as a director to watch, as she took the life of beloved New Zealand author Janet Frame and fashioned it into a lyrical, sweeping, and intimate portrait of a woman living under the burden of a world that underestimates her. With special care taken in seemingly every shot, Campion dramatizes Frame's three autobiographies To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984), and The Envoy from Mirror City (1984), which were originally presented as a television miniseries that cast three actors—Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and Kerry Fox—as Frame in her childhood, her adolescence, and her adulthood. The resulting film follows Frame's life growing up in a poor family, living in a mental institution, and, following her escape, writing and publishing some of New Zealand's most famous written works. —ES
6. Bright Star (2009)
After the muted reception to the contemporary erotic thriller In the Cut, Campion returned to the past, chronicling the tragic romance between Fanny Brawne and the poet John Keats. Abbie Cornish brings a startling emotional intensity and intellectual passion to the role of Brawne, who first falls in love with the ailing poet's words, while Ben Whishaw nails the delicate fragility of a troubled, doomed figure like Keats. (Paul Schneider is also excellent as Keats' roguish friend.) Though the material might initially scan as dry fodder for the fantasies of stuffy English majors, Campion locates the heat and drama in each careful glance, brush of contact, and cryptic remark. As gentle as her approach can be, zeroing in on the pleasures of the language and the natural beauty of the landscapes, Campion also captures the gnawing sadness and the cosmic cruelty of the romance at the film's center. —Dan Jackson
5. Holy Smoke! (1999)
Holy Smoke! confounded some people back in 1999, but it's one of multiple Campion movies that have been reappraised in recent years. Kate Winslet, hot off a minor phenomenon called Titanic, made a bold left swerve, playing a spiritually emboldened Australian 20-something named Ruth who has gone and committed herself to the teachings of a mystical Indian cult leader (Dhritiman Chatterjee). Campion wrote the script with her sister, Anna, crafting a sweaty, eccentric parable about the maximalism that's possible when sometime finds an off-kilter mode of self-discovery. She cast The Piano's Harvey Keitel as a deprogrammer hired by Ruth's parents to relieve their daughter of her new persuasions, and naturally they fall in love in the process. It's Campion’s funniest movie, peppered with a hallucinogenic spirit that's as strange as it is watchable. —Matthew Jacobs
4. Sweetie (1989)
Some might argue that Campion's filmography technically starts with Two Friends, a made-for-TV movie broadcast in Australia, but for our purposes we're starting with her theatrically released debut Sweetie. Everything you think you know about Campion's work might be challenged if you've never seen this audacious and sometimes downright bizarre piece. Kay (Karen Colston) is a mousy woman who begins a romance with her engaged coworker on a fortune teller's advice. Their relationship has already hit a rocky period when Kay's chaotic sister Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon) crashes into her life. Sweetie is a deluded hurricane who thinks she is destined for stardom because of a single dance move involving a chair. Until it swerves into tragedy, Sweetie is a frequently hilarious, off kilter family portrait. —Esther Zuckerman
3. In the Cut (2003)
Arriving in the early '00s at the end of the erotic thriller's heydey, many critics thought In the Cut, Campion's take on the genre, fell flat. They felt the twists in the film based on Susanna Moore's 1995 novel were "half-baked," and simply couldn't fathom that rom-com sweetheart Meg Ryan would star in a dramatic, sexually explicit role. But it's because Campion wasn't trying to replicate her male contemporaries’ version of an erotic thriller that the movie stands out and feels so uneasy yet gripping. It's instead a film about what it can be like for women to be sexual agents—constantly navigating the male gaze and masculine aggression in order to meet their desires. Ryan gives a career-best performance as Frannie (a role originally meant for Nicole Kidman, who is among the producers), an English teacher interested in exploring her sexuality who connects with a homicide detective (Mark Ruffalo) and unintentionally becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. Oscillating between capturing Frannie's pleasure-seeking journey and her feelings of being watched, pursued, and objectified by men, Campion crafts a rare dark horse of a film that truly subverts the male gaze and now feels wildly ahead of its time. —Sadie Bell
2. The Power of the Dog (2021)
It's hard to not be knocked out by Campion's take on the western if you're a longtime fan of hers. Much like her other work, she takes the traditional and knocks it on its head. Based on Thomas Savage's 1967 novel of the same name, Campion explores queerness and masculinity through Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), a loose canon of a man who when his brother marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who comes along with her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), decides that tormenting them is his number one priority. But under the surface, there's a lot more to Phil than meets the eye, which becomes unearthed when he begins an uneasy friendship with Peter. It's a beautiful, brutal, and thoroughly modern retelling of the western. —Kerensa Cadenas
1. The Piano (1993)
Maybe it's a cop out to put The Piano at the top of this list. For most casual movie fans, The Piano is when Jane Campion first burst into public consciousness. Campion won the Oscar for Original Screenplay for the 1993 film, while her actors Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. Is it at this point overrated? Or one of the rare "Oscar movies" that deserves its status. In a way, I'm tempted to say that The Piano is underrated. Far from its reputation as a stuffy period drama, The Piano is a subversive and sexy masterpiece. Hunter plays Ada McGrath, a Scottish woman with a child (Paquin) out of wedlock, who is shipped off to marry a man in New Zealand, Campion's home country, then experiencing the effects of colonization. Her husband Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill) is befuddled by his new bride. She never speaks, and has almost a compulsive infatuation with the piano she has shipped over along with her personage. That instrument is the catalyst for Ada's relationship with Baines (Harvey Keitel), Stewart's emissary, a roughneck who has adopted Māori customs. What starts as a transaction blooms into lust and a romance. It's a revolutionary, but hard to define, take on female desire, captured with specificity and emotion. It may be her most well known work, but it's also as idiosyncratic as the rest of her filmography. —EZ