Foreign Correspondunce: Movie Review Of ‘Bright Star’
Up until recently, my knowledge of John Keats extended to a mere two facts: 1) he was a poet and 2) his last name is a great moniker for a pet parakeet (“Keats, eat your seed!). Having recently seen Jane Campion’s latest film, Bright Star, I can now say I know at least one more thing, he had it bad for a girl named Fanny Brawne and as these things go, it didn’t turn out so well for either of them.
Set in 1818, Bright Star follows the final years of Keats’ brief life in which he meets 18 year old Fanny Brawne, falls in love, becomes horribly ill and ultimately dies far from her side in Rome. Poets have the worst luck. However, Bright Star, far from being a vehicle meant solely to illustrate the demise of a great Romantic poet, is instead a restitution of place for Fanny Brawne. Slighted by Keats’ contemporaries and given short-shrift by subsequent researchers, Brawne is shown here not as a put-upon or vacuous muse, but as a sensitive equal to Keats both in terms of the depth and complexity of her passion as well as her need to create, albeit through a far different medium.
Brawne (played by Australian actor Abigail Cornish) was a seamstress of no mean talent. Portrayed as a maverick fashion plate, all by her own designs and stitch work, she is confident nearly to the point of overbearance. Perhaps her cock-sureness would be excused in a man, but being a bright, opinionated young woman finds her clashing with Keats’ best friend, Charles Armitage Brown (played by a transformed Paul Schneider of Lars and the Real Girl). Brown’s interference with the budding relationship between Keats and Brawne stems from not only his dislike of Brawne, as she prettily savages Brown’s poems with a fair degree of regularity, but also because of his own dubious intentions towards Keats. Does he want him as a lover or does he simply want him all to himself that they may lock themselves away in their oak-panelled lair and compose poems all the live long day? The ambiguity of Brown’s motivation is never fully explained, but the piggishness of his behaviour is a sick pleasure to watch unfold.
Visually, Campion is in her element. Excelling in period pieces (1990’s An Angel at My Table, 1993’s The Piano and the overlooked Henry James adaptation, 1996’s The Portrait of a Lady, but selectively forgetting her 2003 debacle otherwise known as In the Cut, starring Meg Ryan’s lips) Bright Star is no less a feast of visual delights. Campion’s set design is composed primarily of white-washed rooms, sparely furnished and punctuated with bursts of colour. A palette of mulberry and periwinkle coupled with sheer, billowing curtains is evocative of an Anthropologie ad campaign (or Avoca Handweavers for the Irish reader), the kind of world you want to climb into and inhabit, if only for the sake of just how aesthetically pleasing the whole thing looks. But beyond that, her scenes are composed so artfully, but not necessarily artificially.
And then there is Keats. Played by Ben Whishaw, who is now completely forgiven for his atrocious portrayal of Sebastian Flyte in the disgrace that was last year’s adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, he is adequately scruffy, thin and consumptive-looking to present himself as the cash-strapped and lovelorn poet. I suppose the trap of playing a poet who is in frail health and dependent on others to house him would be to come off as a big effete wimp. But Whishaw’s characterization sees Keats as a guy both sensible and likable who inspired rabid devotion amongst his peers. The critics may have discounted his work in his day, but his friends were believers. His life, in many ways, was one decided by committee. Being dependent on the help of others, he was unable to marry Brawne for lack of a significant income. Additionally, he was unable to stay with her once his health took a turn for the-blood-stained-handkerchief-worse and it was decided he should be relocated to Rome where the weather would do him no end of good. I wonder how the weather was, in his Italian pine box. Not so good I expect.
Supported by a cast of old hands and astonishing newcomers (Kerry Fox as Brawne’s mother and youngster Edie Martin as Brawne’s little sister, Toots), Bright Star is a contemplative film. Never over-rushed or pointlessly chatty, it unfurls at its own pace. And because I cannot escape saying it, here it is: it is a poetic film…you should totally go see it.
Bright Star: 8/10