Bright Star, Dim Audience

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It’s the contrarian in me, I suppose, that is taking some critics’ distinctly subdued enthusiasm for this year’s Cannes Film Festival lineup as a good sign. In case you may not pay attention to such things—this year, the brilliant director Jane Campion is serving as the head of the prestigious festival’s 2014 jury. If it turns out that the contents, or at least the sensibility, of this year’s festival at all mirrors the work of the sorely underrated Campion, then there might indeed be a crop of thoughtful and challenging films coming our way.

Reading a recent interview with Campion brought me to have a look at her last feature film to date—2009’s Bright Star, which tells the story of the brief-but-passionate love affair between 19th-century English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his sometimes-sharp-tongued muse, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).

While Keats was known to Brawne’s family as a man of no money and questionable prospects, they nevertheless became engaged—in a manner of speaking—by the time Keats left for Italy alone in a last-ditch effort to cope with tuberculosis. Keats did not return, as much as Fanny had wished it would happen and believed it would happen; he died in 1821 at age 25, thinking himself to be a literary failure, and leaving behind a catalog of work later to secure his posthumous reputation as one of the greatest poets of the Romantic era.

In the interview she recently gave to The Guardian, Campion referred to Bright Star as a “rebirth” and a return to “simplicity” for her, after the years of struggle she endured in the wake of the enormous success of her most well-known film, The Piano—as her subsequent films The Portrait of a Lady, Holy Smoke, and In the Cut failed to secure wide appeal; and the profound grief she encountered with the death of her infant son, who lived only 12 days after he was born in 1993—shortly after The Piano took the coveted Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) at the very festival she chairs this year.

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There is, yes, simplicity to be found in Bright Star; as Campion points out, the camera is not a restless one—but the images are far from dull, executed with crisp and delicate structure so as to be formal without appearing fussy (think Vermeer rather than Wes Anderson). The script—by Campion, based on the Keats biography by Andrew Morton—comes across likewise: literate but not showy. This is no mean feat when you have characters reciting poetry aloud, and often. Lesser movies have been flattened, rendered pompous at best and transparently ridiculous at worst, with the use of this device.

Hearing Keats’ verse spoken in the film does not quite pack the same wallop as listening to, say, Shakespeare—and this should come as no surprise or be counted against Bright Star in the least, since the Bard’s words were always designed to be appreciated at their highest level in the realm of performance. Non-theatrical poetry can achieve some lovely effects for a listener, too (and oh, how it certainly helps when the reciter is a beloved one), and certainly there were and are traditions of speaking verse out loud, but it seems to me that Keats’ work, like most other poets, rewards best when it is lingered upon by the eyes and the mind of a reader—a more private and interior experience which, as Whishaw’s Keats says in the film, serves the purpose of poetry as it “soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.”

You will, if voluntarily attentive, almost surely feel yourself slow, feel yourself center, and be drawn deep into that mystery, by the reading of Keats. The title poem, “Bright Star,” is the one Keats composes in tribute to Brawn after their first steps of uncertain courtship bloom into a full devotion to one another. The poem is deployed, in parts, more than once in the film, and of course is the one destined to be “writ” upon Fanny Brawne’s heart and memory forever. The poem is not long, so there is some merit in letting it speak for itself:

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Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —

No — yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

Campion’s graceful film of the love between John Keats and Fanny Brawne is full of rich pleasures—it has humor, tenderness, raw pain, and it overflows with what Keats terms the “holiness [of] the heart’s affections.” Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish are luminous in the film together; Greg Fraser’s cinematography pulls off the marvelous illusion of having been fueled by little more than natural light; and.the musical score by Mark Bradshaw is by turns playful and ethereal. The film is both very knowing about romance, including both its fevered highs and lows as well as its nobler realizations.  It is also very knowing about death—in that the film is clear about how the dying is not what is romantic; it is the living.

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In the film, Keats says that if poetry doesn’t come to the author “like leaves to a tree,” it shouldn’t come at all, so as tempting as it is to somehow organize these last few trifles of thought into some sort of clever verse, I will steadfastly resist. Sure, it’s more about the time and effort involved, but I just wanted to act as if I were taking some kind of stand rather than recognizing the limits of my skills. These remaining nuggets are meaningful to me, though, so maybe they will be to you:

Bright Star earned $4 million in domestic box office (against an $8.5 million budget), while Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel topped $200 million as one of the Top 10 hits of 2009.

Bright Star is rated PG. There is no gore, no nudity, no explosions, no dialogue peppered with expletives in evidence. This is a movie from the 21st century, so you may be alarmed by their absence.

When filmmaker Lars von Trier sought to use filmmaking to cope with unhappy feelings, he made Antichrist. When Jane Campion looked to film for healing, she made Bright Star.

  • akentg

    I saw this film under perfect conditions at a special matinee at 10″AM on a Saturday totally alone in the theater, and it was wonderful for all the reasons you give. I had read a review highlighting the performance of MS Cornish. She was all one could hope for. As one who has both taught and loved Keats it was a revelation not knowing the details of this great love. All should see it and rejoice in the fact that it could even be made.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      Another great thing the movie does is give you just enough of the Keats verse that it makes you (assuming you enjoy the movie) want to go and look up more. I enjoyed his jaunty “A Song About Myself” that was apparently included in a letter to Brawne–looks like something he tossed off on a whim to be playful, with an end that takes a bit of a surprising turn.