by HELEN GEIB
Writer-director Jane Campion’s complex, fascinating Bright Star is a joint biopic of the great Romantic poetic John Keats and his fiancee Fanny Brawne. The film is a feminist rehabilitation of Brawne, the victim of character assassination by the Great Man’s fevered admirers who regarded her as at best unworthy of their idol’s passion and at worst directly responsible for his untimely death at 25 from tuberculosis. In humanizing both lovers, the film does a service to the poet as well.
The film, inspired by Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats, is good movie history. That is to say, it is flexible in the details to be faithful to the essentials. It covers the three years of Keats and Brawne’s acquaintance, through their courtship, engagement, and separations; first Keats’ poverty and then his worsening illness prevented their marriage. They were neighbors in London’s Hampstead Heath and for much of the three years lodgers in the same house. Brawne lived with her mother and younger siblings and Keats roomed with his friend and fellow poet Charles Armitage Brown. Other characters make occasional appearances when the plot demands it, but the film respects the lovers’ mutual absorption in the household’s artistically enforced isolation.
Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Brawne (Abbie Cornish) share screen time and narrative importance equally, and are equally active and impassioned in the love affair. The film’s focus on Brawne’s artistry – she is depicted as a talented fashion designer who designs and sews her own clothing – is a more subtle, but as powerful feminist argument for equality. The camera lingers on her hands as she arranges and stitches in scenes that mirror scenes of Keats crafting phrases with Brown as his sounding board. Brown functions as society’s mouthpiece as he mocks her – frequently and with vitriol, deriding the interest and dismissing the effort. He is completely unconscious that his misjudgment of Brawne and her passion is an echo of the literary establishment’s misjudgment of his hero Keats and his.
Romanticism in film is conventionally expressed through idealized physical surroundings, soundtracks buried in lush arrangements of classical music, an artfully exaggerated performance style, characters whose lives are made up of grand gestures. None of these conventions appear in Bright Star. To the contrary, Campion employs techniques typically associated with filmic realism: source lighting; sparing use of music; authentic costuming and set design; naturalistic performance style; realistic characterization. Yet, the effect is not at all realist. Partly this is an inevitable byproduct of dressing good-looking actors in period costume and filming them in dark, wood paneled rooms filled with solid wood furniture and heavy textiles. More fundamental is the anti-realist subject. The film is a convincingly acted drama of a passionate first/young-love affair, where the man especially was a person of intensely felt moods and emotions.
Meanwhile the camera offers us the sublime for our contemplation. Keats’ Romanticism is elegantly and eloquently expressed in images of nature. Nature plays a central role in the film. It is not benign: storms are violent and destructive, while the damp, cool English climate is literally killing Keats. Although nature can be terrible, the garden and Heath are beautiful and a source of poetic inspiration. The intellect is not neglected; Keats’ erudition is displayed in passages of his poetry read aloud by the characters and in his conversations with Brown and their poets’ circle. Nevertheless, emotion predominates. Keats’ emotional state is suggested by the season and the weather, and by shot composition that measures his physical proximity to the natural world outside his rooms. Keats in rapt stillness beneath a majestic tree in the garden encapsulates his poetical philosophy.
Note: The film’s title is taken from the opening line of a sonnet by Keats. Read the poem at its Wikipedia page.
New releases this week: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Little Ashes, Michael Jackson: This Is It, Saw VI, Whip It