Friday, October 23, 2009
Bright Star ***1/2
Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw
Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Edie Martin, Thomas Sangster
While literature has always been an essential inspiration for cinema, its influence has mostly been limited to prose; for, how do you make a film about poetry?
Jane Campion solves the problem in "Bright Star", her ethereal depiction of the short lived romance between English poet John Keats (Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Cornish).
When the film begins, it's 1818 and Keats is living in Hampstead under the wing of his best friend Charles Armitage Brown (Schneider).
He has just published his first book of poetry which hasn't brought any money and has to look after his dying brother. In Hampstead he first meets Fanny, a strong willed young woman devoted to fashion. She lives with her mother (Fox) and siblings (Sangster and Martin).
At first Fanny is indifferent to Keats, but after discovering his sensitive nature she falls in love with him and they begin a secret affair that would last until his premature death at the age of 25 and remain unconsummated.
Campion treats the romance in a unique way, abstaining from stereotypical displays of affection or obviousness. Instead of recurring to corny dialogues she puts her ideas at the service of images and as seen through the lens of cinematographer Craig Fraser they become otherworldly.
Therefore "Bright Star" features scenes that bristle with aching beauty; a scene where Fanny fills her room with butterflies is gloriously fascinating instead of bizarre, while a simple moment where she lies in bed while her room's drapes are stirred by the wind achieves a kind of simple beauty that's both erotic and breathtaking.
During the film one of the characters says that poetry is about the senses-as opposed to intellect-and in such way Campion's ensemble brings raw emotions to their respective characters.
Whishaw's Keats is terribly moving and bittersweet. His tousled hair, sweet voice and meek eyes evoke the yearning of someone who knows he's not meant to last long in the mortal world. You believe someone like Whishaw could come up with some of the most beloved poems in English literature and as a romantic lead he may not be Laurence Olivier, but nobody watching the film will avoid feeling envious of the kisses he gives Fanny.
When he tells her "we've created a world of our own, attached to this world, but of our own invention" it's impossible not to sigh.
Cornish's Fanny is glorious, she isn't the typical Jane Campion female character and while the director tries to give Fanny some of the feminist qualities she has imprinted in her most famous creations, first and foremost Abbie Cornish makes Fanny someone who simply is.
A dedicated seamstress who seeks to shock society with her sartorial innovations, Cornish imprints in her qualities that surpass mere shock value, the way she wears her gowns and hats is her own rebellion.
Her interaction with Armitage (Schneider is brilliant!), with whom she has a love/hate relationship, is delicious. They bicker and insult each other and surprisingly nobody asks Fanny to tone down. Could this be a slip on the director's part or yet another example of how Fanny went against social paradigms?
With that said it's also essential to note how Cornish doesn't make Brawne a modern figure by way of anachronism. Fanny is still a nineteenth century girl trying to cope with change and her place in a society that didn't understand her or her love.
Cornish looks radiant in scenes with Whishaw and even if she often goes for the subtle, silently sarcastic side, when she has an eventual outpour of emotion she will break your heart.
With Fanny, Campion introduces the intellectual theme at the center of "Bright Star" which is nothing else than creating poetry through images and a story.
Fanny herself admits that poetry is a "strain to workout" and asks John to help her understand. But what of those who don't give a damn about poetry or understanding it?
"Bright Star" works exactly like a poem. Those who aren't interested will find it cryptic, uninteresting and impossible to understand. They might be dazzled by the imagery but will be left unmoved.
Those into poetry will relish in the way Campion juxtaposes imagery, music and dialogue. They will not need prosaic methods to evoke feeling.
Whichever side you find yourself on, the way you experience "Bright Star" will be completely unique and unforgettable.