Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bright Star

Having seen only Jane Campion's debut Sweetie, I cannot comment on whether her latest, Bright Star is, as some say, her finest since The Piano. I also don't know if it displays her trademarks, if any, and I would venture to say that comparing direction techniques is largely a waste of time as I'm sure she altered her style from the quasi-surreality of Sweetie at some point before the more formalist technique that informs Bright Star. (I did notice, though, that she hasn't lost her flair for extreme close-ups, though the effect is about as far from the grotesquerie of Sweetie.) However, perhaps there is a silver lining to jumping from Campion's first feature 20 years ahead to this, her seventh, as I can safely say that it as marvelous achievement irrespective of past works, and it may be the most interesting period romantic drama I've seen since Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence.

Campion's elliptical style of storytelling is still a part of her writing it seems, and I was surprised at just how much she was willing to leave out when so many biopics attempt to force every researched nugget somewhere in the film. As with Sweetie, as much can be gained from these gaps as can be determined in what we actually see; besides, it's nice to see a period biopic break the rigidity of its three-act structure in favor of something unique. Furthermore, Campion does not center her story on the poet John Keats but on his neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). On a practical level, it makes sense: when Keats died, he had the letters he wrote to Brawne destroyed, yet her correspondence to him survived. Yet this simple re-framing allows for a more honest exploration of these characters outside of the "genius" of the artist or their relationship.

Opening in 1818 and continuing through Keats' death from tuberculosis in 1821, Bright Star deals with a time when the English upper class was slowly heading towards the edge. The French had already crumbled under the weight of its aristocracy bankrupting itself to keep up appearances, and a similar situation was unfolding in Britain, though the revolution that ultimately reshaped the country was not civic but industrial. Fanny clearly belongs to a dying breed: the member of a well-off family run by a widowed mother, Fanny lives in a large town home with her younger sister ("Toots," played by an adorable Edie Martin) and brother, designing and stitching all of her own clothes.

Brawne meets Keats (Ben Whishaw) at a social function, and later she sends Toots to the bookshop to buy one of his books, Endymion; "My sister just met the author and wants to see if he's an idiot," Toots explains to the owner. Though Fanny enjoys the opening (the famous line "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever"), she dislikes the epic overall and has no qualms telling the author so. For his part, Keats finds Brawne to a style-minded minx with no knowledge of literature that would make her opinions worthwhile.

Eventually, the Brawnes move into the house next to the one occupied by Keats and his rich friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), and Fanny teases Keats that he's sleeping in the bed she used to, and that their rooms are adjacent to each other (think of the building setup as a duplex, if duplexes were made with two mansions). Soon they enter into a chaste romance, spurred when Fanny sees John caring for his dying brother and sees him as more than just a shiftless layabout avoiding real work. Fanny asks him to teach her poetry, resulting in lofty, but direct and beautiful, thoughts on the nature of poetry. "A poet is the least poetical thing in existence," Keats notes, implying that those who stop to analyze the beauty of the world are breaking nature's flow. Bright Star wisely avoids getting trapped in the mire of explaining an art as intangible as poetry, particularly of the Romantic variety, yet thoughts like these made me want to give poetry a serious try, outside of what we were made to read at school.

Naturally, their romance runs into opposition, but Campion adds dimensions to these familiar elements, separating Bright Star from the indistinguishable tide of period dramas. Mrs. Brawne knows that Keats, who's not only a poet but a critically despised one at that, has no financial prospects to support Fanny or her fashion. She does not forbid the romance, though, preferring instead to let it die of its own accord, and when it doesn't she largely accepts the pair's love. Charles Brown, the closest thing to a villain, actively seeks to separate Keats from Fanny, arguing that a woman will hamper the poet's talent, that Keats cannot write about the unrestrained freedom of nature if he is not free. Yet Campion undercuts this typical macho nonsense with subversive truths: if Keats must always be shackled to Charles for financial support, how is he any freer than if he spent his time with Fanny instead? Charles himself has a bit of an infatuation with Keats and stands in awe of his friend's talent; in a way, Charles and Fanny are simply two lovers quarreling over the object of their affection. These were real people, obviously, but the sheer proximity of their surnames stresses this.

Bright Star shows a willingness to present a romance against the backdrop of the most romantic expression of all, poetry, while still allowing for realistic emotions. Keats seems to agree with his friend's assertion that he needs to be away from Fanny to create, even though he enjoys his most fertile period at her side. Both characters have their moments of immaturity, though Fanny's outbursts tend to concern John's feeble arguments for leaving. Though these two never progress their physical romance past kissing, John and Fanny's relationship plays more like a contemporary one set in the 19th century, and the film suffers for it not once.

Campion gets the most out of her two leads, letting Cornish keep Fanny's fiery temperament rather than be "tamed" by her relationship and maintaining Whishaw's balance between Keats' lofty poetic quality and his more grounded stubbornness. There are also moments of great wit in Campion's script and direction, such as an encounter between Charles and Fanny where Fanny boasts to Charles that she just read all of Milton, The Odyssey and a number of other collections that week alone. Charles, knowing full well that this is impossible, asks if she found Milton's rhymes too "bouncy." "Not overly so," Fanny responds, and Charles just smiles to himself having caught her out. There's also the matter of Keats and Fanny's dress, him always clad in blue and her in pink, symbolically separated by gender. Campion presents this simplistic equation ironically and, like all the other conventions of period dramas, she gently turns it around into something that places both people on equal ground.

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