4. An Angel at My Table (1990)
An Angel at My Table, written by Jane Campion and Laura Jones, originally premiered as a miniseries and later screened at the Venice Film Festival, making it the first film from New Zealand to do so.
An Angel at My Table recounts the life and work of New Zealand writer, Janet Frame (played at different points in her life by Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and Kerry Fox). Based on Frame’s three autobiographies, the movie spans decades, chronicling her childhood, years of incarceration at a mental institution, and eventual success as a writer.
Like with Bright Star, Campion’s obvious respect and admiration for Frame is apparent in every shot. Though Janet is often stripped of her autonomy and made to feel less-than, Campion handles her with such care and dignity. In comparison to Sweetie, Janet’s mental illness – and misdiagnosis – is explored at length. Biographical films can feel exploitative at times, but An Angel at My Table never does. Campion is at her best when she connects with her characters on an emotional level, weaving a part of herself into the story. In that way, it’s easy to see An Angel at My Table as Campion’s love letter to storytelling, an epic journey of self-actualization.
Jane Campion once said that she find establishing shots “hard” and “boring”, adding that “Most of my scenes begin in the middle.” This technique, coupled with abrupt cuts from one scene to the next, allows An Angel at My Table to look the way memory feels. It’s similar to Greta Gerwig’s visual representation of memory in Little Women, a film in which Campion’s influence is apparent.
Like Bright Star, An Angel at My Table is a departure from some of Campion’s usual quirks. In doing something different, in tone and in style, Campion adds another dimension to her already vast body of work.
3. The Piano (1993)
If Sweetie and An Angel at My Table put Jane Campion on the map, then 1993 release The Piano cemented her as one of the most important filmmakers of the late 20th century. It remains one of her most influential and best-loved works, receiving near universal praise from audiences and critics. Holly Hunter won Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her role as Ada, while Anna Paquin won Best Supporting Actress for playing her daughter, Flora. Campion won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars and became the first woman to ever win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
The Piano tells the story of a mute Scottish woman named Ada McGrath who moves to New Zealand with her young daughter Flora, following her arranged marriage to Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). After her beloved piano is sold to George Baines (Harvey Keitel), the two embark on a passionate love affair and Ada must decide if it is better to speak or remain silent forever.
“Her original screenplay for “The Piano” has elements of the Gothic in it of that Victorian sensibility that masks eroticism with fear, mystery and exotic places,” wrote Roger Ebert in his 1993 review of the movie.
It is true that Ada feels like a heroine plucked straight out of a Brontë novel. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is an obvious inspiration for the film, with Brontë’s moody Moors the perfect template for The Piano’s haunting, otherworldly feel. That it feels like an adaptation of an actual Gothic novel speaks to Campion’s worldbuilding and her ability to pull us in and submerge us in the lives of her characters.
Campion is a master at teasing desire. From Keitel touching Ada through a small hole in her stocking to Ada’s hands fingering the keys of her piano, the sexual tension in The Piano is thick and taunt – ready to snap at any moment. Much has been said about the relationship between Baines and Ada, with some arguing that their earlier encounters are not entirely consensual. Like always, Campion doesn’t give us a clear answer – she doesn’t patronize us or hold our hand.
The final sequence of the film, when Ada jumps into the ocean after her piano, is probably one of the most stunning moments in all of Campion’s work. We hold our breath, as Ada does, waiting for her to decide whether to live or to die, to sink to the bottom of the ocean with her piano or rise up to the surface and begin again.
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