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Beyond Ambition: Nicole Kidman and Jane Campion’s journey toward Top of the Lake: China Girl
MIFF 2017 Critics Campus participant Blythe Worthy traces the journey made by Nicole Kidman and Jane Campion to bring them both to Top of the Lake: China Girl.
Nicole Kidman’s and Jane Campion’s careers converged for the first time in 1984, when the teenage actress was cast in one of the fledgling director’s first short films, A Girl’s Own Story. Alas, Kidman wasn’t able to take part in the project. “My excuse was that I had final exams to study for,” she stated in 2015, “but the truth is the part would have required me to appear up on the screen wearing a shower cap and kissing a girl." The film wasn’t concurrent with how Kidman thought she wanted to be perceived. “I wanted to be the kind of actress with long flowing hair [who] kissed boys. I was not ready to do the kind of work that threatened anybody,” she would later reflect, before admitting her approach was a mistake: “Today I know better and I say, Jane, if you're out there, I'm ready to don this cap.”
"The part would have required me to appear on the screen wearing a shower cap and kissing a girl. I wasn't ready to do that kind of work. Today I know better and I say, Jane, if you're out there, I'm ready to don this cap.” – Nicole Kidman
Don the proverbial cap Kidman certainly has, re-teaming with Campion to play a visibly aged, prosthetic-teeth-wearing, recently-out-of-the-closet wife and mother in this year’s Top of the Lake: China Girl, the six-part follow-up to the filmmaker’s acclaimed 2013 miniseries. One of four Kidman-starring projects at Cannes 2017 (and two at MIFF) — including Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer — Top of the Lake: China Girl was lauded as one of the highlights of the festival, with many critics praising its nuance and, particularly, its ambition.
Ambition is a word that’s haunted the careers of Kidman and Campion, however, sometimes preventing them from connecting creatively. The pair’s first alliance, a 1996 adaptation of the Henry James novel The Portrait of a Lady, found Campion — then coming off the runaway success of her little-film-that-could, The Piano — finally approaching Kidman at the right point in the latter’s career. As the confident Isobel Archer, Kidman was self-assured and level headed, with a glossy mane of hair swept up onto her head: every inch the actress she no doubt wanted to be as a teenager.
The Portrait of a Lady
Sadly, Portrait polarised critics and performed poorly at the box office. Although a serviceable star in films like Batman Forever and To Die For, Kidman was arguably better known for her personal life than the A-lister she would become in the wake of 2001’s Moulin Rouge! and her Oscar win for 2003’s The Hours. In 1996, she was still a risk-taking star on the rise.
Soon after, Campion and Kidman began developing ideas for what would become their most precarious project, the erotic lit-thriller In the Cut, with Kidman both installed in the lead role and making her producing debut. Having spent five years developing the film, though, Kidman’s 2003 divorce from Tom Cruise necessitated she drop out of the film to spend time with her children. The role was recast with erstwhile girl next-door Meg Ryan, playing valiantly against type, with Kidman remaining on as a producer.
Both The Portrait of a Lady and In the Cut have since oscillated between being interpreted as politically charged feminist triumphs or substance-poor “women’s films”.
The resulting film also performed poorly, though some critics, including Slavoj Žižek and David Thompson, hailed it as a masterpiece. Both The Portrait of a Lady and In the Cut have since oscillated between being interpreted as politically charged feminist triumphs or substance-poor “women’s films”. In each case, the perceived ambition of the films seems to be the main focus of criticism, with reception confused on whether or not to reward Campion and Kidman’s repeated attempts to broach the unfamiliar. In an industry that covets commercial success and instant positive notices, the box-office and critical underperformance of both films seemed to confirm ambition as a dirty word — a weakness — troubling the two artist’s careers.
Not that it stopped either woman. Since 2003 Kidman has made an astonishing 33 films and four television series, including this year’s pop culture phenomenon Big Little Lies, on which she also served as executive producer. A recent Fandor article entitled “The Year of Nicole Kidman: For better or worse” called her recent successes no less than “a full-blown career renaissance.”
Nicole Kidman as Celeste Wright in Big Little Lies
Campion too, has gone from strength to strength. She made waves with 2009 period drama Bright Star, a meditation on the love between romantic poet John Keats and seamstress Fanny Brawne, while acting as a producer on other projects and directing several short films. The first season of her TV crime drama Top of the Lake — Campion’s first New Zealand project since The Piano — stands as the filmmaker’s most ambitious yet rewarding undertaking to date, airing to critical acclaim as a seven-hour season on the Sundance channel in 2013.
With the hotly anticipated second season set to have its Australian premiere at MIFF, Kidman and Campion have come a long way since those tentative early steps in the 1980s. As Julia Edwards, the adoptive mother to detective Robin Griffin’s (Elizabeth Moss) estranged daughter, Kidman reunites with Campion on a project that has the director again taking risks; having tackled rape culture in season one, China Girl sees Campion wield her broad sword to confront Australia’s involvement in human trafficking and illegal sex-work trade.
This time, however, their collaboration is paying off: China Girl’s debut screening at Cannes was a resounding success, with reviews ranging from the glowing to the outright celebratory. It’s a fitting apex for the former reluctant teenage ingénue and her trailblazing collaborator, and a validation of their career-long feminine ambition as a force on screen.
The full series of Top of the Lake: China Girl will have its Australian premiere at MIFF on Saturday 5 August 2017. Jane Campion and select cast and crew will walk the red carpet and take audience questions following the final episode. On Sunday 6 August, Campion will join her creative collaborators Gerard Lee and Ariel Kleiman for a special MIFF Talks event: Top of the Lake: China Girl – In Conversation.
Blythe Worthy is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, specialising in Jane Campion’s miniseries and telefilms. She will be participating in the 2017 MIFF Critics Campus. Read more about her here.