Jane Campion’s The Piano was released 28 years ago and it put her on the map, garnering her an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Director and a statuette for screenplay. It was beautiful but I found it sluggish and, given the stagey performances of Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel, even a little tiresome. It screamed gothic arty.
Still, there was no denying Campion’s eye. For the last 12 years, she has directed exactly one project, the television series Top of the Lake. But now she is back, and again, she has produced a film breathtaking in its visual scope. But she has also remedied some of the infirmity of The Piano. Her latest is intensely personal and after perhaps too methodical of a start, weaves a stunning tale of abandonment and devotion.
Two brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemmons) run a Montana ranch in the 1920s. The former is a sadistic bully plagued by his own demons and the latter, a sweet, formal character who finally goes his own way to marry a local widow (Kirsten Dunst). In the marrying, he announces his independence from his insecure, brutalizing sibling. But Cumberbatch is not done, because Dunst and her effeminate and quirky son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are soon ensconced in the family manor. Cumberbatch’s domineering brings each to different breaking points.
This is ultimately a haunted house film, with its secrets strewn about the surrounding property, Cumberbatch the malevolent force of the manor. But Campion is interested in more, and at the moment of the greatest dread, we learn of Cumberbatch’s past pain and longing, which is surprisingly resurrected by Smit-McPhee. The villain is humanized, and redemption seems possible.
I can’t rave enough about the performances. Cumberbatch simmers with frustration as his world is shattered by the disaffection of his brother. Plemmons is poignant in his utter joy at getting out from under Cumberbatch, and his simple resolve to love is almost aching in its insistence. Dunst is affecting as she is worn down, and her feeble attempts to strike back are studies in anguish. And the performance of Smit-McPhee is a revelation. He is the embodiment of sweet sensitivity but it masks a courage and cunning that you don’t quite suspect but then realize was always there.
As for the look, New Zealand is Montana and it matters not a whit. Campion is every bit as accomplished in the dark crevices of the great house, where Cumberbatch is always waiting to deliver psychological punishment, and outdoors in the vistas and valleys of the ranch and mountains.
One of the best of the year. On Netflix.