Campion was born in Wellington, New Zealand, the daughter of Edith, an actress, and Richard Campion, a theater and opera director. She graduated in Anthropology from Victoria University in 1975, and with a painting major at the Sydney College of the Arts in 1979. She started making films in the early eighties at the Australian Film Television and Radio School.
Her first short film, Peel (1982) won the Short Film Palme d'Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, and other awards followed for the shorts Passionless Moments (1983) and Girls Own Story (1984). Sweetie (1989) was her feature debut, and won international awards. Further recognition followed with An Angel at my Table (1990), an autobiographical and psychological portrayal of the poet Janet Frame. International recognition followed with another Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival for The Piano, which won the best director award from the Australian Film Institute and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1994. At the 66th Academy Awards, she was the second woman ever to be nominated best director.
Campion's work since that time has tended to polarize opinion. The Portrait of a Lady (1996), based on the Henry James novel, featured Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey and Martin Donovan. Holy Smoke! (1999) teamed Campion again with Harvey Keitel, this time with Kate Winslet as the female lead. In the Cut (2003), an erotic thriller based on Susanna Moore's bestseller, provided Meg Ryan an opportunity to depart from her more familiar onscreen persona.
Campion was an executive producer for the 2006 documentary Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story.
She has a daughter named Alice (b. 1993).
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