Jane Campion has annoyed me as a movie-maker for many years. I thought The Piano was highly overrated - well-made, but all rather silly. The only good thing it did was introduce me to Holly Hunter, who later made such an incredible job of Mrs Incredible in The Incredibles.
Campion's earlier movie, An Angel at My Table had come off better, because she held to the New Zealand focus of the book, and Janet Frame really was a character who suffered (but also triumphed). The film that annoyed me most of all was Campion's version of The Portrait of a Lady, in which she not only turned the self-assured Isabel Archer into a total wimp (Nicole Kidman at her most pathetic), but made all the male characters venomous and domineering. And allowed John Malkovich to do his most extreme version of his own persona. He was totally out of control in this movie.
Henry James' book had been one I really enjoyed; to have it turned into a suffering-woman piece of nonsense, was insulting to James - and to the viewers. (And don't talk to me about the opening in which a random bunch of females sit in trees staring at us. Absolute piffle.)
I haven't watched any of her movies since, but I was nevertheless interested to read what people had to say about her latest, Bright Star, in which the story of John Keats becomes somewhat eclipsed by the story of Fanny Brawne.
The reviewer who most interested me on the subject was Stephanie Zacharek, a writer I read as much for her wit as for her view of a movie. I don't always find Zacharek and I see eye to eye, so I found what she had to say about Campion and her movies intriguing (and affirming of my own opinion, of course!):
I feared I was in for a treatise on the drudgery and heartache of the lives of women, a theme Campion has visited and revisited too many times for my taste. In fact, "Bright Star" is the first Jane Campion I've ever liked, and that includes "Sweetie" and the oft-praised "The Piano." I've always found her movies pretentious and heavily annotated, like the work of a theory-bound academic who fills pages and pages with copious, scribbled footnotes. For me, Campion's filmmaking has always groaned under the weight of her recurring "Oh, how we women suffer!" message.
But "Bright Star" has no obvious agenda. It appears that Campion was simply struck by the tenderness, and the tragedy, of the story, and that has freed something in her storytelling style.
Well, there you go. "Pretentious and heavily-annotated." Yup, that pretty much sums up a good deal of Campion. So it looks as though Bright Star might be worth a visit. Maybe. I still haven't quite got over what she did to Isabel Archer.
Incidentally, Ben Whishaw, who plays Keats, was familiar to me when I saw his face in the promo photos. I realised he'd played a wet young man who was sent to a harsh British prison for a murder he either did or didn't do (I never actually got to see the end of the thing) in a series called Criminal Justice. I first saw this mini-series being advertised in Britain when I was there in late 2007 - I think. Anyway, it turned up in New Zealand last year, but I missed bits of it - the beginning, and the end (!), and found Whishaw's soppy performance a real turn off.
Talk about suffering women - Whishaw would have done as good a job as Kidman in Campion's Portrait. Sorry, Ben.