“The Power of the Dog” is a return to feature films for Jane Campion, twelve years after “Bright Star” (2009) and after a detour through the series format with “Top of the Lake” (2013-2017). The New Zealand director has chosen Netflix to distribute her new film. Available since December 1, it will be the eighth film of her long and brilliant career.
As a reminder, before the arrival of Julia Ducournau with “Titane” this year, Jane Campion was the only woman to have won the Palme d’Or for her film “The Piano” (1993). “The Power of the Dog” won the Silver Lion for best director at the Venice Film Festival and Benedict Cumberbatch will be, for some film lovers and critics from twitter, one of the favorites for the “Best Actor” Oscar.
Jane Campion returns with an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. The novel, published in 1967 had caused a scandal for having undermined the masculine and virile ideal inspired by the cowboy. It’s only in 1990 that the book will be recognized as a great success of American literature. Montana 1925, divided into five chapters, the film is based around a meeting. A meeting between two brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), rich owners of land and cattle, with Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who runs a small inn and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose physical appearance and behavior make him ill-suited to this era and this universe where virility is a sign of strength.
Phil is a leader respected by all, nostalgic of his late mentor, whose virile behavior will take him away from empathy and emotion. Unfortunately, sometimes, the character of Phil falls into a cliché a bit crude. On the other hand, his brother George seems more thoughtful and sensitive, after twenty-five years spent with his brother taking care of the cattle, he can’t seem to stand his brother’s behavior anymore and aspires to change his life without falling into loneliness by getting married to Rose. The latter, is a woman who seems to have lost all her bearings following the loss of her husband, who allowed her to make a place for herself in this world ruled by men.
Each character will be developed in an interesting and complete way, this is one of the greatest strengths of this film. Thanks to these different developments, Jane Campion addresses several themes, the place of women at that time, the place of virilism, the defiance about homosexuality but also the fraternal and mother/son relationships. The most important meeting of the film will be the one between Phil and Peter. Phil, who does not hide the contempt he has for Peter and his puny appearance, will gradually identify himself through young Peter and will play for him the role of mentor. A strange relationship is established between them, this relationship gradually deconstructs the character of Phil until his true behavior appears.
The music of Jonny Greenwood, the cinematography of Ari Wegner, the greatness of the actors (especially Jesse Plemons) and the work of reenactment show us that Jane Campion knows how to surround herself and produces a mastered work in which we feel the strength of her experience.
The Power of the Dog is a successful film on many levels and a superbly realized adaptation. However, some viewers might criticize the film for some clichéd behaviors (especially Phil’s, but well compensated by Benedict Cumberbatch’s great performance) and the slowness of some shots (which I think is well controlled and therefore not annoying).
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