Monday, October 5, 2009

Bright Star (Movie Review)

Two very remarkable things about Jane Campion's new film Bright Star, based on the thwarted love affair of poet John Keats and seamstress Fanny Brawne:

One, the film cuts through Hollywood "romanticism" to the spirit of early nineteenth-century Romanticism. The movie relies little on a grand sweeping musical score (most of the music is simple, heavily reliant on human voices in harmony), and there is little or no "star power" in the casting, though I admit, for me personally, to having a certain thing for actor Ben Whishaw, who plays Keats, ever since Perfume: The Story of a Murderer in 2006, and for North Carolina-born (local boy) Paul Schneider, who plays his friend and sometimes benefactor, Mr. Brown. The film, obviously steeped in period costumes and decor, even manages to avoid feeling like a Merchant-Ivory production, mainly by affecting a stark yet poetic naturalistic tone, akin to Peter Weir's early film, Picnic at Hanging Rock. The actors murmur, moan, growl their lines, rather than enunciating them as if performing on a stage. The flutter of eyelids and the nervous glances aside tell us as much about these people as the dialogue. And the effect is to make the people and the situations of the story more real to us.

Two, the film deals with the subject of writing and poetry intelligently. It is a love story, sure, one that captures the reality of romantic yearning more vividly than any film I've seen in a long time, but it is also the story of a writer who faced an uncomprehending audience in life and whose reputation as one of the great English Romantic poets emerged only after his early death, at age twenty-five.

In one scene, certain to be replayed in literature classrooms everywhere, Keats explains that poetry works in the senses, not the mind. When one dives into a lake, he says, the immediate purpose is not to work oneself back to the shore. Instead, one luxuriates in the tactile sense of being in a lake, its tastes and smells. So, likewise, one enters a poem to "feel" what it has to offer by way of sensuous pleasures and surprises, not simply to work it out like some kind of brain-teasing puzzle. It's a subtle point, beautifully made, and as true of Campion's richly sensuous film as it is of, say, "The Eve of St Agnes" or "Ode to a Nightingale."

Particularly compelling is Abbie Cornish, as Fanny. This is, after all, Fanny's story, not Keats's. In the beginning, we see her mentally caught up in her stitching, photographed so as to emphasize the evenness and regularity of her work. She is a craftswoman, but, we learn later, a craftswoman who yearns for a sense of the sublime as any poet or painter. At first, she is petulant and teasing, and only gradually are we let to see her depth of feeling and character. Her dynamic change from self-absorbed girl to muse to passionate, self-assured woman is wonderful to watch ... and it comes with her gradual awareness of the imagination's power to connect us to the grandeur of nature and thus to all human feeling (a fundamental premise of Wordsworthian Romanticism).

But the real achievement in the film is writer-director Jane Campion's. She makes the characters real for us, but she reminds us of our own sense connections to the world, what it feels like to hold a cat or to feel the ping of a snowflake against one's already cold cheek. She draws our eye to the weird gorgeousness of butterflies, like insects and faeries merged together, and the beautiful, sad, horrible impermanence of all the lovely things in life that touch our senses. I cannot, in fact, think of another movie that so accurately captures what being in love feels like, for me, anyway.

But as I said, citing Keats, there is no point in trying to explicate such beauty as this movie offers. Plunge in. Enjoy. Feel what you can feel. It will be over and done all too soon.

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