Writer and Director: Jane Campion
The London Film Festival’s second headline Western is a very different proposition to Jeymes Samuel’s gun-toting The Harder They Fall. Jane Campion’s quiet contemplation of domestic discord, The Power of the Dog, gives star Benedict Cumberbatch an opportunity to play against type as an imposing presence shaping the lives of those around him, a bully frustrated by changing circumstances that threaten his power base.
Brothers Phil and George Burbank run the family ranch in 1925 Minnesota. George, chastened by his sibling’s overbearing manner quickly marries local cook, the widowed Rose, who moves in, trying to bring a touch of gentility and civility to their home. When Rose’s medical student son Peter arrives, Phil leans on the boy and the household dynamic shifts once more.
Campion’s film is divided into five chapters, each marking a key sequence in the story that has a slow-burn quality. Each section is almost distinct, focusing on different characters, narratives and slightly later time periods that can make the overall effect feel choppy, even slightly untethered as it is being viewed. But Campion is in control of her film strands, bringing them together in the chilling final moments as everything that came before slots into place, the seemingly disconnected scenes rearranging themselves as you look back
The visual aesthetic is less traditional Western, although the tropes are there, and more rural farm in nineteenth-century America overshadowed by stunning mountain-scapes and flat, open spaces that Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner use to emphasise the disproportionate power of nature in this environment and the unforgiving landscape that human inhabitants must bend to. Contrasting this with the delicacies of polite society, female accomplishment and homely refinements creates a clash that plays out through the story.
As the silent, glowering Phil, Cumberbatch is very good, suggesting both physical menace and the unwillingness to move, as well as the comradeship he feels towards his employees who look to and respect him as their leader whether they are castrating bulls or tormenting Peter. But later, Cumberbatch finds depth, even sensitivity as a close friendship with a former protector comes to light – a relationship he continues to cherish – and a connection with Peter grows into something meaningful for Phil.
Kodi Smit-McPhee as the bookish, nature-loving Peter has a cold streak that will upset rabbit lovers while Jesse Plemons’ introverted George is full of quiet acceptance. Kirsten Dunst does much with role of Rose who struggles to adapt to her new household and finds solace in drink, although the part feels underwritten with big leaps in character development that are never explained, relying on Dunst to sell it, which she does.
This is Campion’s first film in more than a decade and another big showing for Netflix which has several films in this year’s Festival including Samuel’s which are proving a worthy investment for them. And with Cumberbatch offering a very different kind of performance, The Power of the Dog is a thoughtful piece about the cowboy life style and the decisive power of the landscape.
The Power of the Dog is screening at the London Film Festival.