Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Film Review: Bright Star

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Jane Campion’s treatment of the love affair between Fanny Brawne and the great Romantic poet John Keats occasionally comes to imaginative life. Overall, though, it isn't much more than a mild, rather dreary historical romance.

Bright Star, written and directed by Jane Campion, is at its best in its happy moments. The spirit of Romanticism suffuses bits like John Keats (Ben Whishaw) basking cheerfully atop a tree, or Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) lying in bliss as a sunny breeze blows a window’s curtains over her. There’s a charming slapstick scene featuring Keats and Fanny walking with her prepubescent sister (Edie Martin). The couple walks behind the younger girl, holding hands and kissing, but every time she looks back, they immediately separate. Their moving away from each other becomes increasingly theatrical, and they ultimately freeze into human statues whenever the sister turns. And Campion comes up with a magical moment to illustrate how inspired Fanny was by Keats’ famously passionate letters to her. She and her sister begin a butterfly farm in their bedroom, and one stares in wonder at the scene in which Fanny, her sister, and their mother (Kerry Fox) talk while the colorful insects flutter around them.

But these moments are fleeting. The butterflies are no sooner introduced than their corpses are swept into a dustbin. The (chaste) romance between Fanny and Keats was a doomed one. They met when she was 18 and he was 23, and he was dead from tuberculosis at the age of 25. Campion’s take on the material--she based her script on the relevant portions of Andrew Motion’s gargantuan 1998 biography of Keats--is grubbily naturalistic, with an emphasis on dreariness. The film isn’t boring--the individual scenes are intelligently written and reasonably well crafted, and the story moves along at a decent pace. But Fanny and Keats aren’t especially vivid, and Campion appears more interested in recreating the period than anything else. Her knack for poster imagery occasionally gets the better of her: there are shots of flowery meadows that are suitable for framing. But in general, she seems to want to impress the audience with gritty realism. Her vision of England circa 1820 is long on rain, mud, and gloomy interiors, and she manages to get in a few scenes that highlight London’s squalor as well.

Campion isn’t especially true to the setting, though. The actual Fanny and Keats had fairly active social lives, but judging from the film, one would think they were living in relative isolation in the English countryside. There is an early ball scene, with Fanny having a full dance card, but afterward, she is never shown having any suitors. As for Keats, apart from his relationship with Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), his housemate and benefactor, he seems a friendless recluse. The romance seems to blossom by default. The inattention to the social milieu also leads to some discordant moments later in the film. When Fanny’s mother tells her that her relationship with Keats has become a source of gossip among their neighbors, one has no idea who the mother is talking about. And after Keats develops tuberculosis, a gaggle of friends repeatedly show up to discuss raising funds in order to send him to more healthy climes in Italy. One sits there wondering who these people are, and why the film hasn’t introduced them earlier.

The picture is relentlessly low-key, and it fails the most basic test for a fictional treatment of historical figures: Would anyone be interested in these people without any prior knowledge of who they were? One appreciates the challenge Campion faced in taking this material on. Writers are difficult characters to dramatize. They tend to be sedentary, introverted workaholics--hardly the stuff of an engaging movie. Other filmmakers have tried to solve the problem by getting overtly fanciful with the writers’ lives. Shakespeare in Love, the most successful example, used the writing and initial performance of Romeo and Juliet as the basis for a rich farce. Another recent effort, Becoming Jane, reimagined an episode from Jane Austen’s life as the sort of narrative one would find in her novels. Campion significantly departs from the facts of Keats and Brawne’s lives just once, and even that seems half-hearted. After being told of Keats’ death, Fanny hacks off her hair and, in a near-catatonic reverie, wanders the wintry countryside reciting a sonnet he wrote for her. It’s part Sylvia Plath and part Emily Brontë, and it’s an uninspired fizzle.

One might think that Campion would have tried to build a counterpoint between Keats’ poetry and the events of the story, but the poems are used in a way that suggests Campion had to be reminded to include them. Ben Whishaw occasionally reads lines from the poems in voiceover, but it never adds anything to the scenes. Fanny and Keats read stanzas of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” to each other, which makes little sense given that Fanny is repeatedly shown to find poetry baffling. The initial use of “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art,” the sonnet Keats wrote in Fanny’s honor, is laughably redundant; Keats recites the line “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast” with--that’s right--his head nestled in Fanny’s bosom. Whishaw delivers a fine reading of “Ode to a Nightingale” over the closing credits, but the placement makes it seem like an afterthought.

The cast is largely unmemorable. Ben Whishaw’s Keats and Abbie Cornish’s Fanny are notable mostly for their physical contrast: he’s sallow and frail, while she’s robustly healthy and plush-figured. Whishaw and Cornish are capable actors, but the characters aren’t developed enough to be particularly compelling. Kerry Fox and Edie Martin are intriguing as the mother and sister; one only wishes Campion had given them something to do. The only performer who makes a strong impression is Paul Schneider. But unfortunately, the impression he makes the wrong kind. Charles Armitage Brown is written as a comic boor, but Schneider is far more boorish than comic. Every time I heard that booming voice of his, I sat there clenching my teeth waiting for him to leave. Worse, Campion seems oblivious to how bullying a presence he is in his scenes. She needed to tone him down, and she often makes him even more overbearing. An extended rant in which he berates himself for failing to do right by Keats would have been too much under any circumstances; Campion has him yell it over the sound of a squalling baby.

Looking at the ads for Bright Star, I’ve been struck by their similarity to those for the Twilight movies. The male protagonists are wan, gaunt, and vaguely Byronic, and the women are both earthy, unidealized beauties. Twilight’s hook is that the vampire hero loves the heroine too much to give in to his lust for her blood. (Is there any question as to the metaphor there?) It has been derided as abstinence porn, and Bright Star has this quality as well. An air of unrequited desire hangs over the film, with Campion putting an exclamation point on it in Keats and Fanny’s last scene together. She offers to have sex with him the night before he leaves for Italy, which he refuses out of, as he says, “conscience.” Bright Star seems tailor-made for audiences who get the appeal of Twilight , but wouldn’t be caught dead watching a teenage vampire movie. So they’ll happily go to Campion’s flat historical love story instead. It isn’t imaginative enough to confuse them, and it’s about a great writer, so it must be serious. Essentially, Bright Star is Twilight for pretentious middlebrows. Personally, I’d rather reread Keats.

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