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AFTRS Alum Jane Campion Wins Best Director at Venice for ‘The Power of the Dog’

Jane Campion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival | Image: Getty

Following a four-minute standing ovation at the premiere and a raft of rave reviews for her sinister western The Power of The Dog, AFTRS alum Jane Campion has been awarded the Venice Film Festival Silver Lion for Best Director.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons, the feature is Campion’s first since 2009’s Bright Star.

Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog tells the story of a 1920s Montana farmer named Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch), who stews in anger over the marriage of his brother George (Jesse Plemons) to his new bride Rose (Kristen Dunst). The film came with the biggest budget she’s ever received to make a movie, courtesy of Netflix, which will release the film in December.

In her acceptance speech, Campion said, “I thank Venice festival. It’s amazing that you’ve managed to make this happen for us. It’s so special for us filmmakers to be here live with audiences and experience what we dream about.”

She also praised her cast, particularly Cumberbatch, who she said went “’round the world and back again to find this character, to strip himself bare, and play Phil Burbank, whose suppression made him cruel and fragile, also with yearning.”

Campion is only the second woman to have won Venice’s director prize since it was introduced in 1990, the first being Shirin Neshat in 2009 for Women Without Men. This is Campion’s second Venice Film Festival win, having received the Grand Jury Prize in 1990 for An Angel at My Table.

Campion’s work also received a nod on the night from Maggie Gyllenhaal, who won Best Screenplay for The Lost Daughter, and in her acceptance speech mentioned Campion’s Academy Award and Palm D’Or-winning The Piano (1993) as a critical influence on her work.

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The wave of praise that met Campion’s long-awaited return to cinema saw critics unanimously praising her direction along with the performances of the lead cast, and the film is already tipped to be a strong awards season contender.

“A work as boldly idiosyncratic, unpredictable and alive with psychological complexity as anything in the revered director’s output,” said The Hollywood Reporters David Rooney. “This is an exquisitely crafted film, its unhurried rhythms continually shifting as plangent notes of melancholy, solitude, torment, jealousy and resentment surface. Campion is in full control of her material, digging deep into the turbulent inner life of each of her characters with unerring subtlety.”

In The Guardian’s four-star review, Xan Brooks said the film is “so confident and well-textured it reminds us what we’ve been missing.” Adding, “the landscape without her has looked a little arid and flyblown. Put too many men in charge of the business and sooner or later the entire system breaks down.”

“A rivetingly tense movie that screws tight like a Patricia Highsmith thriller without forsaking its Western splendour,” said David Erhlrich for Indiewire in an A-graded review. “The Power of the Dog sticks its teeth into you so fast and furtively that you may not feel the sting on your skin until after the credits roll, but the delayed bite of the film’s ending doesn’t stop it from leaving behind a well-earned scar.”

Deadline’s Todd McCarthy called the film “a serious, ambitious, living and breathing work, a film that sticks in the mind, ignites a mix of feelings that you can stew about for days and makes you want to examine it in the light from different angles”.

While, Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri said, “Campion preserves the simplicity of Savage’s prose with the understated ease of her own storytelling … She has always managed to enter her protagonists’ minds by focusing on the external, on the things they see and touch and the thick air around them. In her work, the environment is a force in itself, both reflecting and fueling the characters’ psychological states.”

In a five-star review for the BBC, Nicholas Barber wrote that there were “echoes” of Campion’s The Piano, in the main characters of The Power of the Dog but the latter was “darker, stranger, and horribly gripping in its own right.”

The Power of the Dog is fast making its way through some of the festival circuit’s biggest annual affairs, having just screened at Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals, set to appear as the Centerpiece screening at New York Film Festival, and shortly after at BFI London Film Festival. The film will also have a theatrical release in Australia and New Zealand via Transmission Films.