- Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst star in Jane Campion’s new film “The Power of The Dog.”
- “The Power of The Dog” is Jane Campion’s first film in over a decade.
- Benedict Cumberbatch gives a towering performance as an American rancher called Phil Burbank.
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New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion – who was the first woman to win the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or, and the second-ever nominated for the best-director Oscar – has mostly fallen off the cinematic grid and it’s largely by her own design.
In an interview with Vanity Fair earlier this month, Campion said cinema had become complicated and was less “daring” than making television. (Her Emmy-winning TV drama “Top of the Lake” was her sole directing credit of the 2010s.)
This is a damning statement from a director whose groundbreaking work shaped contemporary filmmaking at the turn of the century. Campion’s new film, “The Power of Dog,” however, suggests that she might just have found a new spirit for filmmaking.
The film, which is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, follows Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a handsome, intelligent but often cruel rancher in 1920s Montana whose desires, secrets, and fears are painfully challenged and exposed. It happens when his brother George (Jesse Plemons) brings home a new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who becomes a subject of ridicule and then attraction over the course of a summer break,
“The Power of Dog” is a startling return to cinema by Campion, who’s an artist in complete control of the cinematic form and the issues that plague human existence.
What’s hot: Benedict Cumberbatch is a commanding lead in ‘The Power of The Dog’
When we first see Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank in action, he gallops into the frame on a stag. He’s beguiling, but mean. He’s also crass often referring to his brother as “fatso,” and he takes great pleasure in torturing his brother’s wife. But he is also mysterious.
Beyond the familiar male Western bravado, there are no real signs as to why he’s such a bully. Although we do know that he holds Bronco Henry, a now-deceased rancher, in extremely high regard. He speaks about Henry constantly, remarking about his world-leading riding skills, his innovative weaving techniques, and the influence this has had on his life.
These constant reflections on Henry are frustratingly abstract until, suddenly, they aren’t. At the turn of a dime, it becomes clear that their relationship was not only educational but emotional – and, possibly, sexual.
But we are not told this through a voice-over, flashback, or one of Burbank’s stories, but through the subtleties of Cumberbatch’s performance. And it is here that the film moves from being merely intriguing to deeply affecting and moving.
As the film moves deeper into Burbank’s world and we slowly watch him initiate a companionship with his brother’s step-son, Peter, it’s hard to believe that it’s Cumberbatch – who has made his name playing nice guys and, in recent years, a neurotic superhero – onscreen. His performance is commanding and brave: to put it simply, Cumberbatch has never been this good.
Bottom Line: ‘The Power of the Dog’ is set to be a big awards favorite
With a towering theatrical performance from Cumberbatch as well as fine supporting performances from Dunst and Jesse Plemons, “The Power of The Dog” will undoubtedly play big with awards audiences come fall.
It also signals Netflix is still intent on trying to nab an elusive best picture Oscar – the film is scheduled to be given a limited theatrical release on November 17, 2021, prior to streaming on Netflix on December 1.
But at the core of “The Power of The Dog” is all the magic and sensuality of Campion’s previous work. She’s often been interested in how and why we love. With “The Power of The Dog” she shifts her gaze specifically to men (for the first time in her career) and asks a similar question – a question asked by James Baldwin in “Giovanni’s Room” and E.M. Forster in “Maurice”: What happens when you can’t love or you’re afraid to love?
Without spoiling a brilliant third act, all I can say is that Campion’s answer is definitive.
“The Power of the Dog” is set to stream on Netflix December 1.