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Not to be missed: Lord Collins reviews 'Power Of The Dog'

Suppressed sexual emotions: Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter | Image: Courtesy of Netflix

4 min read

Montana’s rugged terrain forms the powerful backdrop to Jane Campion’s panoramic vision of sexuality, grief and resentment set on a cowboy ranch in 1920s America

What strikes you first about this film is the panoramic landscape, which you soon learn is as important to the story as the characters. The terrain and the haunting music by Jonny Greenwood create a powerful backdrop to an emotionally charged story about sexuality, grief, and resentment. 

The Power of the Dog, written and directed by Jane Campion, is based on Thomas Savage's 1967 novel and stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee. It’s an excellent film which I have no doubt will continue to win more awards for both its director and actors. I’m not normally a betting man but Benedict Cumberbatch’s explosive, scary and sexy performance as Phil surely deserves an Oscar.

Unlike Campion’s previous movies the central figures in this are male. Two wealthy brothers George and Phil Burbank jointly operate a large ranch in Montana. They are complete opposites: George is calm, unassuming and slightly overweight with Phil being tense, physically strong, and verbally powerful. Phil constantly refers to his brother as “fatso” – something George fails to react to, even his facial expression remains unmoved.

When the ranchers herd their cattle to market they stopover at a restaurant- cum-hotel run by Rose and her son Peter. Peter helps his widowed mother in the restaurant where his artistic creativity leads to homophobic taunts from some of the newly arrived customers. These originate mainly from Phil who we soon learn appears to have unresolved issues from his past. Phil’s behaviour drives Rose and her son to tears and George seeks out Rose to comfort her.

This sets the scene for the story that follows in which George develops a relationship with, and subsequently marries, Rose. She and Peter then move into the ranch. Resentment builds in Phil who sets out to undermine his new sister-in-law. His treatment of her impacts her mental health, which worsens when Peter is sent off to medical school.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s explosive, scary and sexy performance surely deserves an Oscar

When Peter returns from school Phil’s relationship with him gradually changes from foe to mentor, recreating the role of the omnipresent cowboy Bronco Henry, whose past on the ranch is constantly referred to as well as the plaque to his memory. Bronco we learn was Phil’s “mentor” when he was the same age as Peter. Phil’s homophobic taunts diminish but his resentment against Rose grows.

In his talks with Phil, we also discover from Peter the true circumstances of his father’s death. This bereavement gives even sharper focus to Peter’s determination to look out for his mother. 

It soon becomes clear that both Phil and Peter have suppressed sexual emotions. Peter a juvenile striving to be an adult and protect his mother – and Phil the adult struggling to connect with his childhood mentor. 

The film had a powerful impact on me echoing in part my experience of bereavement when my father died suddenly at the age of 42 from a brain haemorrhage. At such times not only do you lose one parent but the relationship with the surviving one reverses. A child tries to take on an adult role. I suspect things may have changed nowadays, but over 50 years ago I was frequently told by well-meaning adults that I needed to look after my mother. For me the film was at times not easy to watch but its mixture of love, grief, resentment, jealousy, and sexuality made for a powerful story not to be missed.

Lord Collins of Highbury is a Labour peer

Power Of The Dog
Written & directed by: Jane Campion
Broadcaster: Netflix

Including Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Actress

British talent to watch: Best Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch

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