‘The Power of the Dog’: Exquisite Cinematic Storytelling

From the very beginning as the opening credits appear, the premise of the story is laid out for the viewers. This is a crucial introduction as it sets the stage for what the story is about, how a son would do all he could to save his mother from suffering. The narrator is Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) via a voiceover: 

“When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of a man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?’

It is Montana in 1925. Peter’s mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) runs The Red Mill restaurant and lodge in the remote landscape of the wild. One day a group of cowhands driving their cattle passes by. While dining at the restaurant, their leader, rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), picks on the effeminate Peter as he serves them. Rose is distraught, but the kindness and love of Phil’s brother George (Jesse Plemons) wins her over. Not long after that the two are married. The downside of an otherwise beautiful relationship is having to live under the same roof with Phil in the Burbank family ranch home. 

The Burbank family ranch in The Power of the Dog. Photo: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Rose lives in fear of Phil, a bully who can crush her fragile psyche by just whistling. Phil’s masterful banjo playing is a slap in the face and a show of force as Rose struggles to learn to play the piano. George while loving is oblivious or rather subdued by Phil as well. Peter has gone away to study medicine but is back in the summer to be with his mother, observing keenly her deteriorating psychological state and addiction to alcohol for relief. The relevance of the opening lines in the voiceover begins to brew. 

New Zealand born director Jane Campion, one of only seven women ever to have been nominated for an Oscar in directing (The Piano, 1993), comes back with an exquisite production shot on location in New Zealand, twelve years after her last feature film. The Power of the Dog is an exemplar of superb cinematic storytelling.

Campion has an exceptional team under her helm. The four main characters are strong talents. Cumberbatch’s nasty streak is conveyed not only by his demeaning words but his posture and the confident way he walks and rides. However, nothing pierces as sharply as his often silent and chilly manner, staring his opponent down with his ominous gaze, a role that’s against type for the British actor who had brought Sherlock to a new generation and had since been nominated for an Oscar playing WWII math genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). Cumberbatch’s performance here is in top form, likely getting him another Oscar nomination.

It is Smit-McPhee who steals the scene as the effeminate, slim and pale Peter. Underneath his appearance of weakness is his tenacity and a smart mind, especially when his self-imposed mission is to save his mother. Discovering accidentally Phil’s secret hideout, Peter comes to realize that hidden behind Phil’s macho front is a gay man. Knowing this, he gains Phil’s trust and admiration to turn the tables on him. The whole revealing of the plot flows out seamlessly; no doubt, credits also to the author of the 1967 novel the film is based on, Thomas Savage.

Campion’s storytelling is masterful in that she drops hint after hint as the film moves on, all important cues leading to the ultimate end. Without spilling any spoilers in this review, look out for these scenes: cows dead from anthrax, Peter’s anatomy exercise in his room, his exploring the mountains by himself and skinning the hide of a dead cow he comes across there, his gloved hands.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner frames her shots exquisitely and imbues them with contextual meaning to move the story along. The topography of the New Zealand location in place of Montana’s wild west exudes the beauty of the natural landscape, creating a colour palette of the open range with shades of brown, teal, and dusty rose for Dunst, at times capturing the natural light of the golden hour; Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven comes to mind. From her camera, the interior set design of the ranch home and the barn are framed with superb aesthetics.

The score composed by Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread, 2017) augments the suspenseful mood, particularly effective is the dissonance of the strings, revealing the discords among the characters and their internal strife.

A Western only in its setting, with no shootouts but no less intense, characterization astute, conflicts psychological. The finale leaves a slight, nuanced smile on the face of the victor. He can now ride off into the sunset with relief as the Bible verse the title comes from, Ps. 22:20, is fulfilled: ‘deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog.’ A new chapter begins for Rose and George as they step back into the ranch home as a free and happy couple.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix.

Upcoming Books Into Movies — List 3

For an update of this post, CLICK HERE to Great Film Expectations.

What makes a book movie material? I’m not thinking of the plot-driven page turners. I mean literary fiction, albeit the term is open to debate. Anyway, what baffles me is, how do filmmakers determine whether a book is good for a movie adaptation? Just let me give a few examples.

The English Patient. Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize winning novel that reads like poetry and leaves me swirling in nostalgic daze. When Anthony Minghella finished reading it in one sitting late one night, he knew right away that he must make the movie. Well, he did and won 9 Oscars for his film. But for another equally poetic work that I’ve enjoyed, Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, its movie adaptation just didn’t work that well for me.

I can name many others. Muriel Barbery’s philosophical novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog stirred up deep resonance in me, but its movie adaptation Le Hérisson failed to produce such impact. Booker Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day delves into the internal worlds of the two main characters, and is turned into film effectively, thanks to the fine performance of the actors, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.  Ishiguro’s more recent work, Never Let Me Go is both cerebral and emotionally charged, it too enjoys a good film transposition.

Or, how about short stories like Alice Munro‘s “The Bear Came Over The Mountain”, about an elderly couple dealing with the wife’s Alzheimer’s. When 28 year-old Sarah Polley finished reading the short story on the plane, she decided she would adapt it into film and who she would get to play the main character. The result is Polley’s directorial debut, the Oscar nominated film Away From Her, with Julie Christie getting a nom for Best Actress and Sarah Polley for Best Adapted Screenplay.

I’ve learned to appreciate books and movies as two distinct art forms. While I used to delve into the ‘loyalty’ issue, how close the film is to its source material, now I’m more accepting to new interpretations and diverse visual representations as long as the work holds up to its artistic values. But one thing still baffles me: How does a filmmaker decide whether a book is movie material?

The following are my recent findings on some literary works that are or will be adapted into films (ie, movie rights sold). On the top of the list, generating a lot of buzz these days is Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. Now, it’s on my TBR list, as I’m still no. 213  in the hold lineup at my local library. But for those of you who have read the book, what do you say? Do you think the book makes good movie material? And the most intriguing for me, as always, how do you transpose philosophical ruminations into a visual medium? How do you dramatize intellectual angst?

Here’s Ripple Effects generated Upcoming Books Into Movies — List 3.  If you’ve missed List 1 and List 2, just click on the links. Some of the works mentioned on those previous lists have already been shown on screen. Arti will continue to furnish you with updated info on future books into films.  And all ye book group members, here are your 2012 suggestions:

Upcoming Books Into Movies — List 3

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2015, Scott Rudin producer, who will also bring you Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections in 2013. Impressive record as a producer of modern literary works into films: Revolutionary RoadDoubtNo Country for Old MenTrue Grit… and soon Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (Keira Knightly, Richard Gere, Eric Bana, Emma Thompson, Rachel McAdams will be directed by Scott Cooper, who did Crazy Heart, 2009)

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (From producer Ileen Maisel who’s bringing you a new Romeo & Juliet in 2012. I’m curious to see how they approach this adaptation, a sequel to Midnight In Paris?)

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (TV movie. The Pulitzer Prize winning novelist cited the HBO series The Sopranos as her inspiration.)

The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink (2013, Schlink has a previous work The Reader adapted into film.)

Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson (Ridley Scott has got the film rights, and it’s going to be “a blend of the popular and the literary.” What’s popular may well be the subject matter these days, memory and the loss of it.)

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (2012, A Musical in “good old-fashioned 2D”, directed by Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech. Anne Hathaway, Huge Jackman, Russell Crowe, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush. Sorry, no Colin Firth singing here.)

Runaway by Alice Munro (short story, screenplay by Jane Campion. Like I said earlier in this post, a short story can be turned into a deep feature film. I await this one from Campion, who won a screenwriting Oscar as well as the Palme d’Or for her 1994 film The Piano. Her more recent Bright Star on the poet John Keats reaffirms her literary style in the visual medium.)


Other related posts on Ripple Effects:

Can a movie adaptation ever be as good as the book?

Upcoming Books Into Films (List 1)

More Upcoming Books Into Movies (List 2)

Movies Reviewed

Photo Source: Films, Wikimedia Commons, Books, Arti’s file.

Bright Star (2009)

Bright Star 1

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:– Do I wake or sleep?

— John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale (1819)

1819 was the most prolific year of the English Romantic poet John Keats.  Many of his well-known works were created then, two years before his untimely death from tuberculosis at age 25.  His muse was Fanny Brawne, his 18 year-old neighbor, a fresh and self-assured young fashion designer whom he met a year earlier. Untrained in poesy or prose, Fanny Brawne had nothing in common with the brooding poet, but Fate, cruel or kind, instilled in them a burning passion for each other.

Unable to maintain a living financially, Keats was honorable to restrain his love for Fanny, knowing marriage would never be realized.  Yet Fanny’s incessant devotion for him soon won him over.   In a short time, she devoured all of Keats’ poetry, as well as other literary works through the ages.  Their short-lived romance culminated in an engagement.  But they were never married.  Stricken by tuberculosis,  Keats left for Italy in 1820 to seek better climate for his ailing health, knowing that would be their last farewell.

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain…

Nominated for a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year, Jane Campion’s Bright Star is a beautiful tapestry weaving together the visual and the word.  Based partly on Sir Andrew Motion’s biography on Keats, the film depicts the bittersweet romance between the poet and his muse, tragically short-lived yet ever burning bright.

Bright Star 3

Campion has created on screen the dazzling visuals of the master painters.  There are numerous Vermeer moments in the interior shots, all done by the window with natural light seeping in as Fanny sews, makes her laces, reads love letters.  Outdoor scenes are a natural cinemascape reminiscence of impressionist vision.  Like the paintings of Monet and Seurat, hazy and dreamlike, they effectively convey the illusive union the young lovers achingly long for but is teasingly placed out of their reach.

Although never consummated, their passion for each other is no less ablaze.  The film is a clear statement that love is not synonymous with nudity and sex on screen.  Campion has depicted their passionate ardor with sensitivity and restraints.  There are moments of utter quietness, for love needs no language.  There are scenes adorned with melodious vocals and instrumentals, augmenting the yearning within.  Campion is a master of cinematic effects.

The talented Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, 2006) is aptly cast as Keats.  Fanny Brawne is played by Abbie Cornish (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 2007).  Both are award-winning rising stars in their homeland of England and Australia.  Bright Star could well be their breakout work in North America.

Bright Star 2

Paul Schneider (Lars and the Real Girl, 2007) is convincing as Keats’ friend Charles Brown, and what looks like Fanny’s love rival.  A stark contrast in character with the poet, Brown offers much needed tension and conflicts. Fanny’s adorable little sister Toots (Edie Martin) gets some of the best lines. Her brother and chaperone Samuel is played by Thomas Sangster.  But why Thomas Sangster?  The talented young actor who has held his own in such films as Love Actually (2003), Nanny McPhee (2005), and The Last Legion (2007) playing against such calibre actors as Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Colin Firth and Emma Thompson, is put in the background only, with less than half a dozen speaking lines.  There’s definitely a miscast here. (Watch for his role as Paul McCartney in the upcoming John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy.)

While the film is a beautiful testament of a star-crossed romance, compared to Campion’s previous works, I find it lacks the depth and complexity of The Piano (1993, Palme d’Or) and the intensity and riveting effect of The Portrait of a Lady (1996).  I have no problem with the slow pacing of Bright Star, but I do wish to see more dramatic conflicts and deeper exploration of character.  A thing of beauty should indeed bring us joy, or deep emotion, but for some reasons the visual beauty has not come across to me as affectively and engagingly as they are intended.

Nevertheless, as the only woman director to have won the Palme d’Or in the 62 years history of the Cannes Film Festival, and one of three women ever nominated for an Oscar in directing, Campion has much to offer.  I’m excited to see that it looks like the trajectory of Bright Star is one that shoots for the Academy Awards comes next March.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

(Photo Sources: canada.com, ctv.ca)