Tuesday, 3 November 2009


Bright Star (currently in the London Film Festival and opening 6 November) marks a return to costume drama for Jane Campion, and revisits many of the same themes as The Piano, albeit with literature substituted for music. Pitched somewhere between the symbolic and silent story-telling of The Piano and the ethos of the celluoid world of Jane Austeniana, the film struggles to decide just who is whom in its romantic triangle, and just what its central issue ultimately is.

Partly, of course, this is because we know (or at least those of the audience who still have read poetry know) that Keats' romance with Fanny Brawne is never consummated, that he will die of 'consumption' (which, as Susan Sontag pointed out, was the Victorian Romantic way of investing tuberculosis with the tragic power we now give cancer), and his poetry will not be recognised properly within his lifetime. Thus the film flounders about looking for ways to move itself from one recitation of a Keats classic poem to the next; it would have been nice to hear Keats read Fanny one of his less well-known verses for a change, before moving on to their inevitable parting and his equally inevitable death.

The Piano was, at heart, about a woman's struggle with the strictures of society; Ada does not participate in society by speaking (though she signs, which seems a rather hypocritical compromise), she has had a child out of wedlock, and is 'sold' into marriage in New Zealand, where she eventually falls in love with the one European who has actually left his society for another, a sort of Pacific rim Dances With Wolves. As in The Piano, Campion tries to establish a triangular relationship; in this case between Keats, Fanny, and Keats' friend Charles Armitage Brown. Fanny quickly announces that Brown is her 'enemy', even before she has fallen in love with Keats, and Campion will play on a sublimated homosexual attraction more and more blatantly, and contrast Brown's appalling lack of fashion sense with Fanny, who is, in the film's worst conceit, a Designer. Fanny shows up in each scene with a new outfit, designed and made by herself, as if materials had no cost in those days. It is an attempt to show her as practical, as well as witty, but it jars. The costumes are part of a film that is, in every sense, a showcase for Abbie Cornish, and it is thus pitched at a level of quiet that lets her dark expression and bright clothing speak for her.

Brown is played by Paul Schneider as a wild man, George Baines in NW3. Campion must see something intrinsically wild in American actors, and here it contrasts with the true heart of an Antipodean actress with a resemblance to Nicole Kidman. But where, in The Piano, the wild man turns out to be the one with the equallty true heart, here it is Brown who is false. In fact, the valentine's card he sends Fanny, which turns Keats into a raging bull who pins him up against a Heathen tree, is the exact equivalent of the message on the piano key which sends Stewart into a violent rage in The Piano. Oddly, in this film Keats' consumption is brought on by a trip on the outside of a coach from London to Hampstead in the freezing rain; in reality it seems to have been the result of a trip to Mull with Brown, which would have been all the more reason for Fanny to villanize him! What is exceedingly odd however, is the film's title, taken from a poem about steadfastness, because the character who most wishes he were 'as steadfast as thou art' is neither Keats nor Fanny, but Brown. That he in the end is revealed as a cad, who impregnates a servant girl, is confirmation of this conundrum.

The problem is that Keats becomes the Ada figure, communicating through his own sign language (poetry) which no one understands except Fanny (and, inconveniently, his friends who thus must mostly remain offstage in this film). This requires that Fanny has to be both Flora , and the Stewart character, the one bound to societal strictures. Keats cannot marry Fanny because he has no money; even she understands that. But the pathos of that conflict is lessened by our knowledge that Keats also cannot marry Fanny because he is going to die.

The real core of the film is the attempted transformation of Fanny from restraint to passion, and back again to restraint, and it is here that Campion's silences are best used. There are some wonderful set-piece scenes, the lovers touching opposite sides of the wall, for example, that convey the story far better than internal monologues or joint recitals of Keats' poetry. Keats' departure is a truly gut-wrenching scene, because it is so brilliantly underplayed, and sets up Cornish for a big finale when news of his death reaches the Brawnes, interrupting their everyday life, in the kitchen, in an off-handed way. Campion channels some of the strongest emotion, as she did in The Piano, through a child, in this case Fanny's younger sister Toots, played nicely by Edie Martin. Visually, as you'd expect, it's lovingly constructed, with both the houses and Hampstead Heath used to accentuate the characters' emotions, to pin them in or set them free. It made me long to live in Hampstead again!

Perhaps the less one knows about Keats, the more one will enjoy Bright Star. His circle of friends, those who believed in his talent, are shown as a supporters club, but have no relationships with him, as if giving Leigh Hunt or Charles Cowden Clarke personalities would somehow diminsh Brown's lugubrious presence. Ben Whitshaw's Keats is the ultimate Romantic poet hero, alone and palely loitering from the start. In some ways he's like one of those teenaged vampire heroes in todays film and television, without the power once the sun goes down, but with that same kind of doomed, half-dead beauty. This may be a reflection of the screenplay's source, Poet Laureate Andrew Motion's recent biography of Keats, which shall we say embraces the tragic romantic ideal. John Gittings' 1968 biography is somewhat more straightforward, no less tragic, but probably not as open to turning Fanny Brawne into a fashionista and Brown into Mr. Toad of Toad Hall.

To be honest, although all the reviews and publicity will probably emphasize the differences between Jane Campion's costume drama and mere costume drama costume drama, the reality is that this film works best exactly on the level of standard period drama, and Campion's exquisite visual sense of the dramatic make it an excellent example of that sort of thing. Where it tries to extend itself into the sort of unique set of conflicts that made The Piano memorable, Bright Star stumbles somewhat over its own costumes. Perhaps I need to sharpen my own negative capability a bit.

1 comment :

MrRed2020 said...

Bright Star is one of the best dramas I've seen all year! The cast was amazing, and the music haunting. Here's a great interview I found with Abbie Cornish talking about her character in the film, and how she turned to Keats' original poetry to answer questions during filming. You can find it here:
Jane Campion is truly one of the most influential female voices in film today, and I don't think anyone else could have captured the essence of Keats' story like her!