Dead serious

I’d really like to like the work of Jane Campion: when she talks about what she’s doing she seems sympathetic and thoughtful. Many years ago I enjoyed An Angel at My Table, but I thought The Piano collapsed into the kind of schoolgirl mush you’d expect of Emily Bronte, and In the Cut was just unconvincing on every level, as a thriller or a meditation on sexuality.

Top of the Lake was mislabelled as something Twin Peaks-like. That’s not Campion’s fault, and indeed some characters in the series make explicit reference to Blue Velvet, which is its more obvious inspiration. I liked the way in which Peter Mullan’s unhinged drugs lord drew on the Dennis Hopper character in Blue Velvet, and more interestingly seemed to offer second thoughts on Harvey Keitel’s ridiculous proto-hippy in The Piano. In that light I liked the way Campion had created a spiritual guru with unhidden contempt for her followers, though the “wisdom” she herself offered seemed no more insightful. Perhaps that was the point: here in their different ways was a bunch of people in existential crisis, who had come to an idyllic landscape literally called paradise, and found that the place offered no relief from their turmoil, because they carried it inside themselves … This was a brave move for a film maker, to evoke so strong a sense of place, and yet do the reverse of the pathetic fallacy, suggesting that the landscape was as harsh and indifferent to humanity as it was beautiful to look at.

So far so good, but after six hours I was left feeling mostly relieved that the story had finally worked itself out (and let me go), and very unsatisfied with the routine turn of the plot. It seems to me it would have been far more interesting (and consistent with the ambiguities Campion and her fellow-writer had set up) if Mullan’s character, monster though he was, had not impregnated his daughter, and if our heroine Robin had had to deal with the knowledge that she had slept with her half-brother. This would have been darker it’s true, but that would have been consistent with the prevailing tone of the piece. As it was it felt like a false resolution had been forced, and the strongest element in the piece – the disturbing effect of watching two doomed lovers grasping hopelessly at a happiness you knew would elude them (Robin’s true parenthood had been strongly signalled) was simply dissipated.

I’m not sure that there was a single joke or light moment in the whole six hours (unless you see Holly Hunter’s gnomic scorn as funnier than it was), which makes for a draining experience. Coming to the lurid black comedy of Dexter shortly afterwards made me feel I was back in the hands of film makers working at a higher level, even though Campion’s work is on the face of it far more serious.

Perhaps that’s the truth of it, that there’s something juvenile or at least adolescent in such monotonous seriousness. It’s part of what made The Piano unbearable, and I was reminded of it too when I finally got round to watching the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. Yes, the CGI effects are amazing, but look past them and you’re mostly left with portentous and turgid nonsense masquerading as seriousness (especially when there are elves involved).

I’m not a fan of Tolkein: I was as a teenager but I left this enthusiasm behind with other childish things. The Hobbit is better for being shorter than Lord of the Rings, but Jackson has squandered that advantage by elevating everything to an epic scale, and the result is ridiculous. It’s significant too that Jackson, true to Tolkein, shows the Shire like something out of children’s TV, a hybrid of Tellytubbyland and The Woodentops. This longing for the imagined cosiness of childhood, as well as the complete absence of sexuality, is acceptable in a children’s story, (and reflects the vicious sentimentality of Tolkein’s turn of mind) but when as Jackson has done you dress it in the clothes of the adult imagination you only emphasise the smallness of the body, the inadequate fit.  

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