Jane Campion Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jane, Campion 1955(?)–

New Zealander filmmaker.

The following entry provides an overview of Campion's career through 1994.

Campion is best known for films that feature strong, compelling female characters and realistic—while also somewhat oneiric—narratives. Her early works are characterized by highly stylized techniques and a nonlinear, experimental approach to storytelling. Her subsequent work—best exemplified by The Piano (1993)—rely less on technical flourishes and emphasize the development and subjective experiences of her protagonists.

Biographical Information

Campion was born in Wellington, New Zealand, to parents who were professionally involved in the theatre—her father was a director and her mother an actress and author. After unsuccessful attempts studying art in Venice and working with a documentary film producer in London, Campion attended the Sydney College of Arts in Australia. During her last year of study there she made her first short film, Tissues (1981). In 1984 she earned a diploma in directing from the prestigious Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. Campion's work first gained widespread critical attention at the 1986 Cannes International Film Festival, where her film Peel (1982)—made in her second year at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School—won the Palme d'Or award in the short film category.

Major Works

Campion's early short works and the feature-length Sweetie (1989) are marked by what she has described as a maverick approach to filmmaking. Sweetie, considered Campion's first major work, blends the supernatural with the mundane, the comic with the tragic. The story focuses on the relationship between Kay—a somewhat emotionally disturbed young woman who is deathly afraid of trees—and her sister Sweetie—a loud, overweight, manic-depressive aspiring actress with a voracious appetite for drugs, alcohol, and sex. The theme of the tenuous distinction between sanity and insanity is explored when Kay's father, Sweetie, and Sweetie's boyfriend all move in with her. This theme is further developed in An Angel at My Table (1990), in which Campion fulfilled a long-held desire to make a film about novelist and fellow New Zealander Janet Frame. Based on Frame's three autobiographies—To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984), and The Envoy from the Mirror City (1985)—the film features three actresses in the role of Frame from childhood through adulthood. The story follows Frame from her isolated and uneventful childhood, her culture shock and emotional troubles upon going away to school, through her endurance of shock therapy after an inaccurate diagnosis of schizophrenia, and her eventual marginal assimilation into society and maturation into a respected author. The Piano begins when the willfully mute mail-order bride Ada (Holly Hunter), her illegitimate daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), and their belongings—including Ada's full-sized piano—are delivered from England to a deserted beach in New Zealand and left to wait for the arrival of Ada's new husband, Stewart (Sam Neill). Ignorant of the piano's importance to Ada, Stewart orders it left behind when he arrives the next day. The piano is later retrieved by Stewart's assistant, Baines (Harvey Keitel), who suspects its significance. The themes of interpersonal communication and marital relationships are developed as Baines, not Stewart, recognizes and exploits the fact that Ada's piano-playing is her most important means of self-expression.

Critical Reception

Critical opinions about Campion's work vary. While she is generally recognized as a technically skilled filmmaker, some critics believe she emphasizes the purely stylistic aspects of her films at the expense of the cohesiveness of her stories. For example, Campion and the actresses from Sweetie were lambasted by critics at the Cannes film festival in 1989; later that year, however, the film received the Australian Film Critics' Circle awards for best film and best director. Noting the stylistic experimentation of her early work, several critics have stated that with An Angel at My Table Campion displayed a growing artistic maturity. The film received numerous awards in 1991, including the Toronto Film Festival Critics Award, the Otto Debelius Prize from the international jury at the Berlin Film Festival, the Elvira Notari Award for the best woman director, and eight awards from the Venice Film Festival. Critics observed that Campion was much more gentle in her treatment of the real-life Janet Frame than she had been toward her previous fictional characters, Sweetie in particular. Many reviewers of The Piano praised Campion's skill in accurately reproducing 19th-century period detail, acknowledged the artfully and technically impressive camera work in the film, and commended her ability to elicit impassioned performances from actors. Other commentators were made uncomfortable by her use of the camera, specifically the reliance on close-ups, and suggested that the film's narrative was too elliptical, requiring the viewer to draw connections and conclusions that the film should have depicted. The Piano was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar for best original screenplay and a nomination for best director.