Sixteen years after she became the first female director to walk off with the top Palme d’Or prize at Cannes, Jane Campion still stands at the head of a field of one.
The buzz around her new film Bright Star suggests she could be about to repeat the success of The Piano in 1993.
But speaking at the festival as her film about Keats premiered, she gave a clarion call to other women to “put on their coats of armour” and become film directors.
She called the studio structure “an old-boy system”, adding: “It is difficult for them to be able to trust women. We know the game.”
Bright Star is her film about the romance between John Keats and his Hampstead neighbour, Fanny Brawne, which blossomed before the poet died in Rome of tuberculosis, aged just 25. A rising British star, Ben Whishaw, takes the lead.
“I don’t think women grow up with the world of criticism that men grow up with,” said Campion (55). “It is quite harsh when they experience the world of film-making and have to develop tough skins. But they must put on their coats of armour and get going because we need them.”
She noted that her native New Zealand was the first country where women got the vote. “That emancipated and egalitarian soul is what is, or at least used to be, at the heart of New Zealand culture and that makes a difference.”
Female directors — such as Gillian Armstrong and Darlene Johnson — have flourished in her adoptive Australia, she said, partly because of independence from the studios, and partly because of state support for production. “They have to be fair, it’s part of the rules,” she said.
“Every film school in the world has equal numbers of boys and girls — but something happens.”
Cannes has already provided a shining moment for British female talent: Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank won a standing ovation on day two, with its story of life on an Essex council estate for a 15-year-old girl. The film has also made an overnight star of an unemployed school-leaver, Katie Jarvis, who was spotted when she was having a heated row with her boyfriend across the platforms at Tilbury Town railway station.
Bright Star was filmed on location in Bedfordshire in April and May last year — which accounts for characters noting the approach of autumn while daffodils and cherry blossoms are in shot. Keats’s house in Hampstead, north London, now a museum, was not used, because it was “fusty and lacking in atmosphere”, according to Campion, although the custodians “were terribly sweet to us and did offer it to us”. Keats and Brawne — who corresponded passionately — were unofficially engaged, and after his death Brawne was in mourning for three years. She eventually married, but always wore the ring Keats had given her.
The idea of focalising the love affair through Fanny came to Campion when she was reading Andrew Motion’s Keats: A Biography. “I fell in love with Fanny as much as Keats. Telling the story through her eyes was such a great way of meeting Keats, because she falls in love with the poet and we do, too.”
Whishaw said: “I didn’t know Keats very much at all [before the film]. In fact, I had a prejudice against Romantic poets generally. I thought I like modern stuff — short lines, blunt. But I grew to love the luxury and sensitivity of his writing. Also you fall in love with Keats as you read about his life and read his letters.”
Kerry Fox, who starred in An Angel at My Table, perhaps Campion’s most celebrated film, plays Brawne’s mother. —