Rather than opt for a straight biopic, Campion chose to focus on Brawne (inhabited fully by Australian actress Abbie Cornish), which allowed her to shoot essentially in one location, since, as a young woman in 19th-century Hampstead, England, “Fanny doesn’t go anywhere,” says the director. Her muse was Alice, “who I had in my head while writing.” She loved Brawne’s “galloping maturity,” so reminiscent of her daughter’s passionate, emotional energy, she says, and in channeling Brawne, she’d imagine what Alice might do. “It’s very helpful having somebody there in the real world. Because you go, ‘I believe that.’”
Her time off, she says, emboldened her to feel that she could stick to what moved her and still find an audience, something she’d begun to doubt after the poor critical response to In the Cut. “I didn’t want to be an artist that too much calculates her popularity or worry that, Oh, people will hate a film like this, it’s got a frigging poet in it,” says Campion, whose first child died in 1993 when he was 12 days old, just after she became the first female director to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. (As of press time, she’s also one of only three women ever to be nominated for a best-director Oscar; considering the collective might demonstrated by female filmmakers this year, there’s a good possibility she’ll soon have more company.) “Tenderness is probably the quality that most moves me.”
As a young girl growing up in New Zealand, Campion was a “romance addict” whose bible was Wuthering Heights—”the Twilight of its time,” she calls it. The daughter of a theater and opera director and an actress who founded their own troupe, Campion didn’t appreciate her parents’ line of work for years. “They’d call each other ‘dahling,’ and I thought them arty-farty,” she says. Her mother suffered from severe depression, and while she and her two siblings “lived on a different planet than the adults and never told them anything,” Campion, who is divorced, prizes the close ties she has forged with her daughter. “Just the other day, she told me, ‘My friends think it’s peculiar that I tell you everything,’” she confides.
As a director, she likewise fosters intimacy with her actors. “On the first day of rehearsal, Jane said to me, ‘This film is like my baby, and I’m handing it over to you to hold,’” says Cornish. She recalls how Campion gave her free rein in the film’s most wrenching scene—when Brawne learns that Keats has died—for which Cornish drew on her grief over close friend Heath Ledger’s death. “She makes you feel that you own the character, even though she created it,” the actress says.