Sunday, April 27, 2014

From My Collection: Bright Star Movie Review

Depicting an artist at work in a film is a tricky thing. The possibilities are greater when dealing with the visual arts because the process of creation is dynamic. But when it comes to filming the story of a writer, what can the filmmaker do to depict process? After all, what is a writer’s process in the majority of cases if not to sit at a desk and think…and write…and drink coffee…and think…and wait for ideas or inspiration? This does not make for very interesting cinema. So the most interesting films centered on writers tend to focus on something that is only tangentially connected to the writing or the finished product. Jane Campion’s Bright Star was a mesmerizing love story to me when I first saw it nearly four years ago and it remained so when I watched it again recently. The movie circumvents the problems of filming a writer’s life and work by making the story about the poet John Keats’ three year unconsummated love affair with Fanny Brawne.

Of course poetry is an essential part of the story Campion tells, but the centerpiece is not the writer who died tragically young, but whose work has survived two centuries of praise and freshman literature classes. Campion puts the teenaged Fanny front and center and makes the story about her, about her first love, and the terrible pain of desperately wanting someone she can’t (because of societal constraints) marry. Fanny and John meet through a social engagement and later Fanny’s family moves in to the house where Keats is temporarily residing – the home of his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Brown is the closest thing the movie has to an antagonist, intent as he is on making Fanny feel uncomfortable and small. Keats is hardly able to come to her defense, dependent as he is on Brown’s generosity.

In casting Ben Whishaw as Keats, Campion has steered clear of the traditional romantic (cinematic) view of a leading man. Whishaw has boyish good looks, but a small and frail stature, suggesting it truly is his mind and his poetry that Fanny has fallen for. His handle on the language of Keats’ verse is exemplary, but Abbie Cornish strikes the most memorable notes in the role of his romantic foil. Her expression of the heartache that comes from lost love and the pain that results from true loss is unparalleled. She exudes wisdom beyond the character’s years and then has her revert to unabashed adolescence in the waiting for some correspondence from the man she loves. Viewers from disparate generations might recognize similar feelings they once had while awaiting a phone call, an email, or text.

I’m sure the irony of one of the greatest poets of the Romantic period being unable to fulfill romantic ambition in love was not lost on Campion when she conceived the story. However, one must consider how much of a “true love” scenario this was for Keats, who reportedly had other lovers prior to Brawne (some of whom even inspired poems as well), and who might well have moved onto other women had he lived long enough. That is why the film is wise to stick with Fanny throughout, for it is the defining experience of her young age that draws the audience’s empathy.

Perhaps Brown comes off as the villain precisely because his primary interest is in protecting Keats. He recognizes the man’s genius and doesn’t want to see him distracted by what may just be a dalliance. We may too easily view him as a self-important oaf when he laments the interruption of important moments of reflection during which he and Keats are waiting for their muse. That is the extent to which we are privy to process in Bright Star. We don’t get to see Keats actively composing (what a bore that might have been), but we do get to see him as flawed when he can only summon from memory the first lines of one of his greatest sonnets before an attentive audience of Fanny and her family.

The great beauty of the film is its ability to be sentimental without being cloying and by being moving through character and acting. Campion is not a sentimentalist, but she succeeds in capturing big emotions in trying scenes. And emotion is always there, present in the face of Fanny’s mother (Kerry Fox), whose expression registers pain and disappointment for a daughter she knows will not find true happiness in this relationship, despite knowing that she can’t prevent the girl from engaging in it. And it’s there in the great pathos of having Brown deliver the devastating final news to the family and reveal himself to have been a true friend. The surprising moments come in the smallest and sometimes unlikeliest of ways.

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