The Power of the Dog ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Review by Andrea Carnevali
Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love. Available on Netflix.
Just when I am writing this, I’m also very aware that this Western without guns is typical of the sort of film which critics love and the average moviegoer hates. The current score on Rotten Tomatoes proves my point: 93% vs 63%.
This divide is usually a sign of a pretentious or boring film, and while The Power of Dog is definitely not either of those (though it might be considered a bit slow if you’re just used to watch Marvel stuff), it is certainly a film that requires patience, attention and sensibility.
For those with a more refined taste the reward is an elegant and evocative film, which tries to be both understated and powerful (the emphasis on the word “tries” might give away where I stand in all this).
Director Jane Campion hasn’t made a feature film in about 12 years, but she certainly remembers how to work with actors and how to frame her story with a camera.
The film looks beautiful and it’s incredibly atmospheric constantly shifting between wide and epic landscapes, burnt by the sun and lingering tight close-ups on the faces of a strong cast as if to expose the many layers of repressed emotions.
The 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, on which the film is based, has been around in Hollywood for a while. At one point Paul Newman and Gerard Depardieu were said to be interested in it. But in the end main role went to Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s delivered a performance that’s likely to take him to the Oscars. His character is full contradictions and insecurities, at times hateful, cruel, brash and insensitive, but others weak, lonely and ultimately a sad broken man.
But to me it’s young Kodi Smit-McPhee who is the real (cold) heart of the film. I remember being impressed by him as a child about a decade ago in Let Me In and The Road. I wish I could say more about him but I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending which not only caught me by surprise, but left me incredibly eager to talk about it and unpack with anyone who has seen it.
This is not a perfect film by all means, it’s a bit too long for a start and yet some of the key transitions and changes in the relationships between some of the characters seemed to happen too fast for me and because of that I didn’t quite buy into it the film completely.
More crucially, Jane Campion’s conscious decision (or stubbornness) to keep it all understated and just about bubbling under the surface, too often backfired and resulted in me watching it cold, from a distance, rather than actually caring about the characters.
Obviously one doesn’t always have to care about the people on screen to appreciate what’s happening, but having now seen how it all develops and especially how it ends, I’m sure there was a much more powerful film (and a more emotionally engaging one too) somewhere.
So basically in the end I’m pretty much in between a critic and an average moviegoer… There you go, the story of my life.
Andrea Carnevali is a Bafta winning film maker who lives in Chiswick.
Don’t Look Up is available to watch on Netflix from 10 December.
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