Jane Campion’s religion of love and disgust

On the set of The Power of the Dog, Benedict Cumberbatch gave himself nicotine poisoning. It turns out, unsurprisingly really, that relentlessly smoking filterless hand-rolled cigarettes during his portrayal of gristly cattle rancher Phil Burbank made him feel very, very sick.

Cumberbatch poisoned himself not once, but three times. His insides must have been pickled. ‘Yes, that seems about right,’ you think to yourself as you watch the film. Phil Burbank is ropy; coiled up like a bull whip, like a rattlesnake. At first his menace seems to lack a target but it quickly comes into focus. 

And we understand why. We see Phil caught between a vulnerable delight as he lies back, alone and naked, luxuriating in gentle sunshine, inhaling the certainly imaginary-by-now scent of an impossible love—and the horror of expressing this openly. And where does the animating power of desire thwarted go? As Campion suggests, often rage feels safer than anguish.

It is surprising, then, to observe an echo of Phil’s single-minded viciousness—is it mean or is it scared?—in the Romantic ruffled pleasures of 2009’s Bright Star. We see it in Charles Brown’s edgy defence of the doomed poet John Keats’ time and freedom. Brown (Paul Schneider) guards the threshold between the world of illness, sex and money and the arcane place from which poetry emerges. 

‘Do not presume we are not working,’ he snaps.

Brown is shielding Keats (Ben Whishaw) from the very physical charms of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Her golden eyes. Her pleasure in dancing. Her strong, sure fingers stitching her lacy confections, of which she’s rightly proud.

A pivotal scene, too, in The Piano shows us Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill) peering through a crack at the wall as he secretly watches his wife Ada (Holly Hunter) and her lover George Baines (Harvey Keitel). His widening eye shines with arousal and revulsion. Here we have jealousy and its fraternal twin, envy. 

‘Love is my religion,’ Keats wrote to Brawne in 1819. In these films, Campion grounds that religion in the visceral. 

Amidst a riotous sea a woman, ADA, is carried to shore on the shoulders of five seamen. Her large Victorian skirt spreads across the men’s arms and backs, on her head a black bonnet, around her neck her pad and pen. We should be forgiven if this woman seems a sacrificial offering as the bay they carry her to is completely uninhabited. A black sand backs on to an endless rise of dense native bush.

(Scene 9 from the draft screenplay of The Piano; the emphasis is mine.)

Love is, in all three stories, tenacious: successively raw and wild in The Piano, intimate and blooming in Bright Star and sly and oppressive in The Power of the Dog. The lush environments of Campion’s films have the viewer feeling—sensing—deeply. We are itching at salt dried to stiff linen. We are euphoric in a field of hyacinths. Our noses wrinkle as the odours of manure and leather combine with the lethal power of familial spite. And the mud. There is so much mud. 

Our journey through these films is also one of increasingly grounded creative processes. From the ephemera of music before its sound could be recorded, to writing and stitching, to a legacy of value rough-hewn from land and beast. By the time we reach Phil Burbank’s Montana, a piano—which was Ada’s comfort in Aotearoa—represents only humiliation for The Power of the Dog’s Rose (Kirsten Dunst). 

In each film, a central adult triad exists uneasily, as children orbit. Yet in The Power of the Dog one of those outer bodies becomes a corner piece, shifting the weight of influence in ways that feel both familiar and shocking. 

And so: the mothers. Ada, Bright Star’s Mrs Brawne (Kerry Fox in my favourite performance: so gentle, so expressive) and Rose. Three very different women united by universal concerns. Ada is by turns passive and ferocious. Her child (Anna Paquin) is initially often her proxy, translating her sign language and speaking on her behalf. Mrs Brawne reacts and comforts as her own child, Fanny, rails against everything keeping her from the poet she loves so passionately. And Rose, poor faded Rose, walks into the quicksand of addiction and shame on the arm of a quiet, kind man. 

All these mothers are shepherding their families through the world on their own. Ada and Rose throw in their lot with marriage. Mrs Brawne navigates genteel penury, calling upon the transient generosity of friends. 

STEWART (getting up) You can’t go on like this, we are a family now, all of us make sacrifices and so will you. 

(Scene 36 from the draft screenplay of The Piano; my emphasis)

And, really, where else is a more apt altar to receive the sacrifices of love and disgust than motherhood? The chaos and gore of birth, right at the border of this world and the next, giving way to the sweet perfection of a round-cheeked baby swaddled in clean, white muslin? It’s exactly the right place.

That the labour of a mother doesn’t end in delivery but something more like the daily work of Sisyphus, too, sits quite comfortably with the tragic elements of these three stories. ‘I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness,’ says Kodi Smit-McFee’s astonishing Peter, of Rose. ‘For what kind of a man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?’ 

‘My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet,’ Keats’ letter to Brawne continues.

In these films Jane Campion’s creed seems to be one of love, too, but a love that—distinct from the Romantic ideal—unfurls within the mucky ecstasy of the venal and the sublime. Her characters come together like waves onto rocks; their bodies tell the story.

When Benedict Cumberbatch soaked his own, real, body in nauseating chemicals and stained his fingers yellow, it was fitting, even natural: his Phil Burbank was sick, too, with yearning constrained and shamed. Alisdair Stewart severs Ada’s finger in a desperate attempt to cut in on an erotic union in which he has no part, only to meet an opaque force of will he is unable to overcome. John Keats is consumed from within—first by words pulling down beauty from the ether, then longing for those golden eyes, and, finally, by Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Each of these characters loves; each is tormented or transcends accordingly. Because Campion’s cinematic religion is a love that’s mostly forbidden, denied or awfully twisted—and just sometimes, gratifyingly, triumphant.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Lucy Berry is an Australian writer and communications specialist. She studied at the University of Melbourne and RMIT, and loves discussing and writing about TV, film, books and podcasts.

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  1. What an evocative piece that captures the complex interplay of disgust and desire and love that threads through Campion’s work. Excellent read.

  2. Wonderful essay which really encapsulates the visceral, sensory nature of Campion’s work. I’m off to go and rewatch The Piano now…

  3. Wow! This was so beautifully written, I immediately wanted to read it again. Incredible turns of phrase and so much communicated with such economy of language. More please!

  4. Wonderful. Loved the imagery. Lucy Berry draws a unifying thread running through Campoon’s films that I had not noticed.

  5. Lucy describes Jane Campion’s twisted, erotic and claustrophobic view of love and desire perfectly in this masterful article.

  6. Great read and great points made vis-a-vis the films covered. Too much of a royal we though

    (The royal “we” is simply the use of the plural pronoun we in place of the singular pronoun “I”.)

    going on for my liking, considering how films are viewed alone mostly, and in the dark often, even if the I is accompanied by some other or others, however close or distant, significant or insignificant, and simply too because desire, like love itself, whether ‘tenacious, raw, wild, intimate or blooming’, is ultimately unobtainable, so putting paid to final readings, thankfully, all supported too by this reading from the main text …

    ‘That the labour of a mother doesn’t end in delivery but something more like the daily work of Sisyphus, too, sits quite comfortably with the tragic elements of these three stories.’

    (Not a fan of tragedy either, because too bleak and hopeless.)

  7. Eloquent and thoughtful, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and insightful commentary on a beloved filmmaker. Like Campion’s own work, Lucy’s piece is expressive and vivid. Humorous and substantial. An excellent read.

  8. Beautiful words and loved the depth of analysis.This piece is romantically written, yet reminds us of the sometimes twisted intensity of Campion’s work.
    I particularly loved the part when Lucy shows us how Campion invigorates our senses; “We are itching at salt dried to stiff linen. We are euphoric in a field of hyacinths. Our noses wrinkle as the odours of manure and leather combine with the lethal power of familial spite. And the mud. There is so much mud.”
    Off I go to watch The Piano again!

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