For a time, Jane Campion looked like the brightest hope of antipodean cinema. After the studied eccentricity of the early shorts and features that displayed her talent for (as one critic put it) "finding the bizarre in the banal", The Piano (1993) burst forth as a rapturous, eroticised reinvention of the Gothic costume drama that scooped numerous awards (including three Oscars), sent Michael Nyman's score high up the charts and skilfully straddled the arthouse and popular markets. But since then Campion has directed only two more movies, Portrait of a Lady and Holy Smoke , both widely considered disappointing. For some critics, her career is in headlong decline.
It is not easy to tell whether Dana Polan agrees. Though he devotes more space to The Piano than to any of Campion's other films, he largely avoids value judgements, and while he quotes the emotional responses of other critics at length, he rarely betrays his own. His monograph, one of a series from BFI Publishing that also includes studies of Lars von Trier and Youssef Chahine, feels judicious but strangely uninvolved; enthusiasm is absent. It is an anomalous approach to a film-maker who "loves the muckiness of life".
Also absent, surprisingly enough, is any discussion of Campion's use of actors. All her films have had a woman in the lead role, and the performances she elicited from such players as Holly Hunter (in The Piano ) and Nicole Kidman ( Portrait of a Lady ) were distinctive and often controversial. Yet neither actress gets more than a passing reference, and Kerry Fox (whose remarkable performance as the adult Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table launched her career) rates not even a mention.
What Polan does provide is a useful overview of critical comment on Campion's films and a considered assessment of her changing style - from the in-your-face quirkiness of the early work to the more classical, reined-in approach inaugurated with The Piano . He offers valuable insights into her thematic preoccupations, citing "a concentration on feminine self-determination", and into such stylistic traits as her use of fluid camera to suggest not so much freedom as emotional restlessness and dissatisfaction. But he presupposes a good deal of knowledge on the part of the reader: anyone unfamiliar with the plot of Portrait of a Lady , or unaware that An Angel at My Table is based on the memoirs of a real-life writer, will find themselves confused. Altogether, anyone interested in exploring Campion's work might find more factual material, and more judgements to engage with, in Ellen Cheshire's rather cheaper The Pocket Essential Jane Campion .
Philip Kemp is a freelance writer on film.
Author - Dana Polan
ISBN - 0 85170 856 0 and 857 9
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 186