Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jane Campion's Bright Star

With her new film, Bright Star, Jane Campion offers a sensitively performed, visually artistic portrayal of the last years of John Keats and his love affair with Fanny Brawne that evokes the sweet agony of first love while at the same time paying tribute to the famous Romantic poet’s immortal poetry.

Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) as poet John Keats and Abbie Cornish (Stop-Loss), as Fanny Brawne, a genteel woman accomplished at designing and sewing her own clothes, earnestly portray the joys and heartbreaks of first love. You can see it in their eyes. You can see it in the way they touch each other and walk together.

After a beginning fraught with friction, their relationship becomes a youthful, playful one. They write each other romantic letters and do romantic things with folded bits of paper. In my favorite scene, they stroll hand-in-hand behind Fanny’s little sister. When the little girl is not looking, they kiss; but when she turns around, they freeze in comical positions. Like love-sick teenagers, they kiss the love letters they send and receive; they place their heads against a wall that separates their rooms. As a dreamy poet with no money, Keats is portrayed as a romantic innocent who spends his time on writing poetry and wooing Fanny. Fanny is the more practical one, and at first she resists Keats’s overtures of love, but when she gives her love to him, she gauges her happiness by the letters she receives from him, and she pines when he is gone.

Meanwhile, Paul Schneider (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) gives a compelling supporting performance as Charles Brown, Keats’s friend, a wastrel and wannabe poet who is possessive of his friend’s attention and antagonistic toward Fanny’s intrusion into Keats’s avocation as a writer. Schneider invests himself admirably in his role as a self-centered cad who is cruel toward Fanny, seeing her as a threat to Keats’s success as a writer.

Jane Campion’s camera frames Malickesque images of nature that suggest the natural beauty that pervades Romantic poetry, along with images of simple interiors, contrasting the austerity of a white, sparsely furnished room with depictions of luxuriously verdant English countryside on a sunny day. Campion lets the camera linger on images such as Keats sprawled out on a pruned treetop or Fanny and her siblings in a field of flowers. Some shots, accompanied by a hypnotic pastoral silence, convince us that we are living a moment in the early 1800s, and it is a shame Campion doesn't allow the camera to linger there a little longer. In one shot, Fanny’s little sister stops on a wooden boardwalk to touch the stiff stalks in a dense thicket of rushes – the horizontal lines of the boards contrasting with the vertical lines of the reeds. In another shot, Fanny’s bare legs lie out from under the laced hem of a white shift. A white curtain billows out from a breeze coming through the window.

There is a lot of whiteness in this film. Along with the image of the white fabrics Fanny uses for her creations, a pervading image is paper: the crisp leaves of one of Keats’s freshly printed books; scraps of paper scrawled with drafts of a poem; folded letters sealed with wax; a Valentine sent by Charles Brown in the shape of a box with a lid that opens. There are many, many letters in this story, and it made me want to go out and buy some fine, white paper, turn off my computer, and write on it with pen and black ink.

In a sense, Campion’s film tries to become one of Keats's poems. Bright Star is a cinematic tribute to Keats’s poetry and the mystery of writing as an art form. We see his words on paper. We see copies of his new volumes. Keats recites poetry. Fanny recites poetry; and, for the most part, Cornish has a knack for reciting Keats’s words with more meaning than Whishaw. Unfortunately, the film is so full of Keats’s words that it stuffs you with language but doesn't bring you in touch with it. The most touching use of Keats's poetry is brief. Keats recites a few lines of "When I have fears that I may cease to be," and then he can't finish - for obvious reasons.

Bright Star is a beautiful, well-acted, interesting, instructive film, but I often felt it wasn’t a very compelling film. Like an educational documentary, it depicts the poetry, the man, and the woman he loved, but it doesn’t necessarily make us feel close to them. There is absolutely no denying that Campion’s film is a meticulously rendered period film, but like one of Keats’s longer odes, it is full of beautiful words and images that don’t necessarily grab you and make you feel.


Craig said...

Normally I can't stand this type of movie, but Tarantino gave it a rave and now you've added to the growing chorus. I'll consider.

Richard Bellamy said...

He did? Well, then Tarantino does like all kinds of movies! But I'm not giving this movie a rave. Like I said, something about it wasn't compelling or touching. But it was certainly visual and very interesting in its detail. Tell me what you think if you see it, Craig.

Daniel said...

"Normally I can't stand this type of movie, but"...well, yeah, that's it.

I've been hearing all kinds of good stuff about it, but not being a fan of period dramas and being ignorant altogether of Keats (no, I don't have a liberal arts degree), this one just isn't grabbing me.

And I think your last sentence here kind of seals the deal...

Richard Bellamy said...

Daniel - I was not excited about seeing this movie - and Keats is my favorite Romantic poet and, yes, I majored in English and my focus was British literature. But, I thought, be open, it's Jane Campion, and I want to be in the know.

I'm glad I saw it. It was visually beautiful - but not extraordinary. And, now, I'm not up for seeing it again; it hasn't stayed with me at all.