Monday, October 12, 2009

"Bright Star": She did not fade, though he had not his bliss


directed by Jane Campion
starring Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon in death.

John Keats was obsessed with love and death. In that respect he was hardly unusual as a poet. What was unusual was the intensity and richness of his response, particularly in the last years of his life—a response no doubt heightened by the knowledge that he wasn’t long for this world. Keats was only 25 when he succumbed to consumption in 1821, younger than Mozart and Schubert were when they died, and certainly younger than any of the great English poets he’s commonly ranked with today. But he wasn’t too young to understand the oddly symbiotic relationship between his two obsessions, nor too young to feel, with both, the conflict between their palpable, almost painful, immediacy and their fundamental elusiveness as objects he could truly grasp and possess—even as they threatened to possess him.

There’s only a whisper of these complex tensions in “Bright Star,” Jane Campion’s gorgeously pensive film about Keats’ relationship with Fanny Brawne, the woman he met and fell in love with only a couple of years before he died. But then “Bright Star” is really less about Keats (Ben Whishaw) than about Fanny (Abbie Cornish, calling to mind a younger, sturdier Nicole Kidman), to whom death could only be the enemy, never the source of fascination it was for her lover. The movie begins and ends with Fanny, and for the most part we only see Keats from her point of view: that of an intelligent but not especially literary-minded middle-class young woman who at the outset is merely curious about the mysterious young man staying with one of her neighbors. The neighbor, Mr. Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), she despises; his guest, however, has a moody, sensitive look that piques her interest. Both men call themselves poets, though Brown acts more like a caretaker of Keats’ poetic soul, which he guards jealously against Fanny’s advances. Keats, for his part, goes from not knowing what to make of Fanny to becoming besotted with her.

The story obviously doesn’t end happily, though “Bright Star” is surprisingly quiet, almost muted, in its depiction of the obstacles that part the lovers. There’s concern, rather than outright opposition, on the part of Fanny’s family, who like Keats but see him as too poor in health, means, and prospects to marry her; and somewhat pricklier disapproval from Brown, who views Fanny as a shallow flirt and a drain on his friend’s emotional and creative energies. (Whether other feelings for his friend, or even, perhaps, for Fanny, underlie his hostility is left open to debate.) The difficulties are enough to prevent the young couple from consummating their affair—though their interactions are so filled with longing that even the touch of a hand or their first kiss, or their recitation to each other of Keats’ haunting ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” carries more erotic charge than the most torrid sex scene ever could.

Despite these moments, the film as a whole isn’t the easiest to enter into, mainly because of the pacing, which can feel unhurried to the point of sluggishness and at the same time strangely fitful, almost jumpy. Campion films have an idiosyncratic rhythm all their own, in which dialogue serves more as a counterpoint to silences rather than the other way around. The love story emerges less through those fly-on-the-wall snatches of conversation than through an abundance of breathtaking visual imagery: Fanny reading a love letter amid a sea of bluebells; Fanny’s little sister, with her glorious curly mop of flame-red hair, wading through sunny fields and dells like something out of a pre-Raphaelite painting, while the lovers trail behind her, stealing kisses; a room full of fluttering butterflies that Fanny cultivates with feverish animation and then lets die when Keats’ letters stop coming. There’s much to enjoy about all this, even if it does feel a little too on the nose.

As a romantic heroine, Fanny is terrific material; as a Campion heroine, however, she isn’t a natural fit. She doesn’t really rebel against the societal constraints that bind her, and she isn’t threatened with violence, unless it’s the violence of her own grief. (Any easy feminist licks may be reserved for a relatively minor subplot that doesn’t involve Fanny, and even that comes to an unexpectedly gentle conclusion.) Nonetheless, Campion does her best to sketch Fanny as an independent-minded woman before showing her in love. “Bright Star” begins with a close-up of Fanny sewing, a posture she returns to frequently throughout the movie—but not just stitching humdrum buttons and pillowcases. No, we see her making—and later wearing—clothes for herself, clothes with bright colors, eye-catching ornamentation and stylistic innovations that she herself proudly points out as real accomplishments. When the sardonic Brown dismisses her work as just so much trivial frippery, she resents it keenly: practically her first words in the film express her resentment. Her attitude, and the film’s emphasis on it from the get-go, conveys an unspoken assumption that her own creative instincts are what allow her to be receptive to Keats’ even if she doesn’t much care for poetry, at least initially. I’m not sure this particular take on Fanny quite works, though it’s hard to articulate why. For whatever reason it feels forced, and at the same time a little underdeveloped. But it doesn’t affect what does work about the film: the chemistry between its two leads, and the ache of their separation.

In the end, “Bright Star” is no more and no less than what it purports to be: the love story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, filtered through Fanny’s perspective. It’s not—nor is there any reason it needs to be—a study of the tyranny of societal expectations or gender roles in early 19th century Britain, or of how Fanny shaped the poetic vision of Keats, a man “half in love with easeful death.” Though as to the latter, all viewers should stay through the credits to hear Ben Whishaw’s wonderful reading of Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” arguably his finest poem. It says everything about Fanny’s one great, and ultimately victorious, rival that the movie could not.



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