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The Power of the Dog – Film Review

The Power of the Dog – Film Review
by Frank L.

Director – Jane Campion
Writers – Jane Campion, Thomas Savage(based on the novel by)
Stars – Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons

Jane Campion received international acclaim in 1993 for The Piano but in recent years, she has focused on the small screen with the Netflix series Top of the Lake. She has not made a feature film since Bright Star in 2009. She returns perhaps surprisingly with a Western. It is set in Montana in the nineteen twenties. The cowboys are the two Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) who have been in partnership, herding cattle twenty odd years. They and their troupe of ten or so hard riding and drinking cowboys have just arrived in a small town where Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) runs an eatery. She is helped by her effete teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George is a domesticated guy and wishes to settle down. Phil is feral, unconventional, an intelligent misfit. He lives his life on his own terms. George proposes to Rose and the four live together under the one roof in the Burdons’ substantial ranch house. Peter is an occasional resident of the house, as he is at college studying to become a surgeon. What the story reveals are the foibles, hopes, fears and secrets of this disparate group as they co-exist.

The film is based on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name. Campion tells the story sequentially in a series of chapters which are identified by Roman numerals. The women are dressed in beautiful twenties slinkiness and the ranchers with heightened masculinity, apart from the brief scenes when they wear nothing at all. Peter is however dressed differently. Yes the idiom is that of the West but it is refined; it is not what you expect to see a teenage boy wearing in a Western.

The camera work, as is to be expected with Campion, is magnificent – not only the outdoor sweeping landscape shots with vast numbers of cattle on the move but also the intimate shots of interiors such as the scenes where Phil makes a braided rope from leather strips. The camera often shows Paul or Phil alone. For apparently different reasons both are outsiders in society. There is an undoubted tension as to what is about to happen. In this regard, the music of Johnny Greenwood adds a further twist to the increasing uncertainty.

Phil is a very different role for Cumberbatch to what he has previously played but it is a masterful performance. He rides as if he was born in the saddle, or strides, booted and spurred, utterly confident in himself. When he speaks he does with calm menace as he torments Rose and Peter.  It is a tour de force. He is well supported by Dunst, Plemons and in particular Smit-McPhee who had a tight rope to walk as a sensitive young man without being stereotypical. He gradually creates a character of adult substance.

This impressive film works on many levels. Campion is a master of her craft. The care with which she works is inspiring. There are many delights to savour in this film.

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