Portrait of a Lady and Her Films

Award-winning filmmaker Jane Campion speaks of growing up, daring to fail, and trusting her instincts to guide her as she tells 'little stories' on the big screen

Three years ago, film director Jane Campion was known to few beyond art-house and film-festival audiences. Then millions watched the 66th Academy Awards bestow three Oscars on her 1993 film, "The Piano," including Best Screenplay for Ms. Campion.

Her new celebrity sprinkled gold dust on the compelling and quirky films that came before - just two features, a telefeature, and a handful of film-school shorts. Her fame also fired immense anticipation for her next film, an adaptation of the Henry James novel "The Portrait of a Lady," recently released in theaters.

"It was a cross to bear that it was another frock drama," says Campion, in Manhattan to premire the film, which is, like "The Piano," set in the 19th century.

Her hair is cut in a short blond shag, and she wears a black knit jacket, burgundy silk trousers, and stylishly chunky oxfords. She is tall and radiates ebullient energy and warmth. One gets the impression she brings down-to-earth enthusiasm to activities, whether hiking on a trail in her native New Zealand or discussing her work in a suite at the Drake Hotel.

In fact, with a two-year production in Italy and England behind her, she is about to take "a big holiday" in the New Zealand bush with her husband, Colin Englert, a television director and producer, and their two-year-old daughter, Alice. Campion is building a hut on a remote sheep station in the alpine region of New Zealand's South Island.

Home is across the Tasman Sea, in Australia, where she and Mr. Englert recently bought "the most beautiful house in Sydney," on a tranquil Mediterranean-like bay. "We'll camp out for a while with our old tacky furniture," Campion laughs. "I don't want to get all caught up with finding curtains."

Instead, Campion is captivated by the contemporary dilemma of Isabel Archer, the heroine of Henry James's novel, who is a free-spirited, idealistic girl until cynical Gilbert Osmond, a fortune-hunting dilettante, lures her into a bleak marriage.

"Isabel wakes to the discovery of how things are," Campion says. "Her insight is her reward. Hers is a tragic rite of passage. Through suffering, she finds her real self. She didn't realize how tough the journey was going to be. She is beautiful, tall, intelligent, arrogant, courageous. But, like women who are not as beautiful, not as sought after, she also experiences the hardships of life.

"Growing up, the expectation is that life will turn out sweetly," Campion says. "When it doesn't, you handle it. It's very 20th century."

As Campion's film opens, young women wearing soft white sheaths describe their expectations of romance and love. The scene echoes the final moments of "A Girl's Own Story" (1983), Campion's 27-minute film about a girl's passage from innocence to experience. In the surreal closing scene, a chorus of girls dressed in white are chanting, "I feel the cold." "It's a mini 'Portrait of a Lady,' " says Campion.

Campion draws from her own experience. "I'm a romantic-obsessive," she says. "I love to fall in love." One relationship left her "unable to trust for two years," but she got over it. "I fell in love again," she laughs.

Mining terrain she knows well, what it means to grow up female, she trains a keen and darkly comic eye on the losses, betrayals, and excesses of control and neglect within families and the decisive moments on which lives turn.

"I tell little stories," she says of her films, which portray coming-of-age crises with the close-up, intimate detail of miniatures.

Campion's TV movie, "Two Friends" (1986), portrays the unraveling of a friendship between two teenage girls in poignant flashback.

Her first feature film, "Sweetie" (1989), is a black comedy that contrasts wild and impulsive Sweetie with her passive sister, Kay. Sweetie descends into madness while her oblivious father dreams that she will be a singing star. "It's both funny and tragic," Campion says of the film, booed at the 1989 Cannes International Film Festival for its seeming heartlessness. "Sweetie's song at the end is about fallen promise. Her father was unable to love her well and was complicit in her illness. Fantasy can be destructive. It's hard to grow up and be real, and come to see things as they are."

Campion speaks of trusting her instincts as she brings "little stories" to the big screen. "I'm grateful to my parents," she says. "Our strong family gave me the freedom to explore."

Born in Wellington, New Zealand, she grew up among actors. Her parents, Richard and Edith Campion, founded New Zealand's first touring theater company in the '50s.

After graduating with a degree in anthropology from Victoria University of Wellington in 1975, Campion earned a degree in painting at Sydney College of Arts in 1979. While at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School in the early '80s, she wrote and directed a nine-minute film, "Peel" (1982), which won the Golden Palm (Palme D'Or) for short films at Cannes in 1986.

Campion credits Australia's government-supported film industry for promoting equal opportunity, particularly the Women's Film Unit, where she worked after film school.

She found her way to filmmaking, she says, "by daring to fail, first in art and painting, then with film. Discovering film was an incredible high. I never thought I would be directing features. It would have terrified me. I didn't have the confidence. First, I made movies that lasted three minutes, then seven minutes, then 27 minutes. My commitment is to each story, not to a career. I do exactly the same thing now."

Campion's "An Angel at My Table" (1990) conveys the tenderness, humor, and heartbreak in the autobiographies of New Zealand author Janet Frame, including her richly observed rural New Zealand childhood and harrowing stay in an insane asylum (she was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic). First a TV movie, the theatrical film version won the Silver Lion and seven other awards at the 1990 Venice Film Festival.

Next, Campion wrote and directed "The Piano," her story of erotic awakening from the perspective of a willful Scotswoman who is mute by choice. The film received more than 30 awards, including the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1993. Campion was the first woman to take the Cannes top prize.

But these triumphs coincided with a great personal loss. After Cannes, Campion gave birth to her first child, Jasper. He lived for only 12 days. "It was the most dire chapter of my life," says Campion. "The success of 'The Piano' escaped me completely."

Alice was born a year later. Her elfin face beams forth from a publicity photo shot during a production break in Italy, where lunch with Alice was Campion's daily treat. "I couldn't survive if work was my only world," says Campion. "My identity as a big-time director is not enough.... When Alice walks into the room, that's the best thing."

Campion's successes have given her a larger palette, but she still paints miniatures. Her canvas is not Hollywood, she says, but the independent film industry, which targets a "huge" audience not satisfied by standard big-studio fare.

Yet she is working on a large scale. "Portrait" cost $24 million, more than threefold the $7 million budget of "The Piano." "I work to my own vision," she says. "If I thought about the millions, it would be scary."

Campion's next projects are already on the drawing board. Susanna Moore's novel "In the Cut" will be her third adaptation with screenwriter Laura Jones. And Campion is writing a screenplay with her sister, filmmaker Anna Campion. "It will be a 'Sweetie'-like comedy with no holds barred."

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