Monday, January 30, 2017

Bright Star

BRIGHT STAR                 A-            
Great Britain  Australia  (119 mi)  2009  d:  Jane Campion 
Bright star, would I were stedfast 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 stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast —
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

—John Keats, from The Last Sonnet, 1819, 637. Last Sonnet. John Keats. The Oxford Book of English Verse 

Thank God somebody still shoots on 35 mm and produces a “real” film that in every detail looks the way film is supposed to look, where color, detail, and art matter.  A film laced with Campion themes and ideas, all beautifully rendered, where one especially admires the meticulous attention to minor details, this is a tormented love story between a sickly young poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), unheralded at the time, and his inspiration, the object of his affection, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), who is consumed by his adoration.  From start to finish this film is an idealization immersed in Romanticism that freely mixes speech and theatricality into cinema in an attempt to broaden the audience’s understanding of the period, from the composition of each shot, where each frame is a portrait in still life, to the extraordinary use of costumes, where actress Abbie Cornish is decorated throughout in simply outrageous, overly dressed outfits which seem to exist only in the movies, to moments where characters break out in a song or dance, and are encouraged by others to do so, usually met with applause, but most importantly with the reverential use of language, which is after all, what we have left from the writings of English poet John Keats, who died of tuberculosis when he was 25.  Jane Campion has done something rarely seen in films without being pretentious (think of Sally Potter’s 2004 film YES which is spoken entirely in iambic pentameter), which is to create a literary language within the film language that interjects itself from time to time, like a film within a film, or a play within a play, where characters break out into lines of poetry, spoken to one another just like ordinary conversation, except the language itself is such a thing of beauty, including the perfectly exquisite way it’s being spoken, that it feels as if we’re being transported into an entirely new Shakespearean play of young lovers.  This theatrical device increases the emotional intensity and saturates the screen with yet another layer of sensuousness on top of the luscious and inspired cinematography from Greig Fraser, not to mention the hauntingly lovely musical score from Mark Bradshaw. 

Everything in this film points to sensuality, from the eloquent way they speak to one another, to the manner of her dress, to the intimately stylized way they’re being framed in close up, followed by idyllic, painterly long shots of her two younger siblings as portraits of innocence in a luscious, unspoiled landscape, always capturing the natural beauty of the world outdoors reminiscent of the cinematic poetry of Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978).  Written by Campion herself, seen through the eyes of Fanny Brawne, we are thrown into a period drama without any introduction or preface, where John Keats has already written his first book of Poems as well as his follow up Endymion, but he remains penniless and not yet a writer of repute, living nearby and supported by a friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), a somewhat rakish, ill-mannered gentleman who spends all of his time in the company of Keats, probably borrowing liberally from his writing methods, supposedly liberated fellows intent on writing poetry.  Campion captures the irony of the Romantic era as a period of female acquiescence where Fanny’s quick tongue and self confidence immediately fascinates Keats with her beauty and outspoken candor, not to mention her new interest in his poetry.  Interestingly, Fanny has a skill in clothing design and wears her stunning creations as if on parade throughout the film, where she can usually be seen sitting quietly in a chair with needle and thread.  Keats is seen as reserved, isolated, and shy, well mannered, with a moral disposition and a keen awareness for language, while Fanny is still a teenager at the time and appears self-centered, a bit conceited in her dress and opinion of others, yet she’s also thoughtfully inquisitive, especially for things beyond her reach, like the world of poetry, which quickly becomes her latest curiosity.  She is seen throughout accompanied by her younger brother and sister, as a “proper” lady never goes anywhere unaccompanied. 

The initial signs of love are simply a ravenous desire to talk with and be in the company of one another, all of which couldn’t be more natural, even when moving into the theatrical language of the era, stealing moments while trying to elude the net that the possessive Mr. Brown surrounds Keats with, who’s probably of the opinion there’s money to be made from this young protégé.  But the flowering of their love couldn’t be more exquisitely realized, especially with walks in the woods and the remarkably inspired butterfly scenes with her little sister Toots (Edie Martin), also a few shots of Fanny in the throes of love, laying on her bed as the curtains flutter in the breeze, or happily playing in a field exploding in the color of violet flowers with her precocious younger sister, actually projecting her love for Keats to her little sister and the rest of the world at the moment.  But trouble ensues, as Keats tries to earn a living elsewhere, where the entire world stops during those anguishing absences until the next letter arrives, where his letters are all that matters in the world.  But as Fanny’s mother, Kerry Fox from An Angel at My Table (1990) and INTIMACY (2001) points out, Keats does not have the financial means to marry, so Fanny’s family is concerned with this all consuming passion, as it prevents her from meeting more economically prosperous prospects.  It is the era of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where even strong, opinionated women have absolutely no opportunity in life other than to marry a rich husband.  Other than that, they were viewed contemptuously by men thinking their opinion as pretty much worthless, which is exactly the way Fanny is viewed by Mr. Brown, so Campion really gets the tone of the era right.  This social dilemma haunts the couple like a plague throughout their entire lives.

After Keats’ brother dies of tuberculosis, followed by his sudden fascination with Fanny Brawne, his poetry takes on an increasing complexity, intermingling the subjects of love and death, eventually falling victim to tuberculosis himself, soon having to come to terms with his own mortality, writing in one of his last letters: “How astonishing does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties on us.”  Set in the poverty stricken, pre-industrial, pre-Victorian world of the 1820’s, there was no treatment for tuberculosis other than bed rest and moving to a more temperate climate, so his need to write, like Mozart on his death bed writing his own Requiem, becomes a race with time.  When Keats moves to Italy during the winters, their love affair appears doomed, but Fanny’s hopes throughout will not be deterred.  The blissful optimism of their budding love affair takes on darker, somber tones by the end, where much of the story is advanced through the reading of letters, as Cornish does an excellent job releasing her pent up anguish at the end where she lets out a ghastly death wail.  The finale over the end credits was unnecessarily confusing, as Whishaw reads “Ode to a Nightingale” (Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats | Poetry Foundation) in its entirety while music plays over the credits all the way to the end, but theater patrons are gathering their coats, talking with one another, even starting cellphone conversations, all with noisy, typical end-of-film behavior, which for most patrons happens as soon as the credits roll, so the voice onscreen couldn’t really be heard over the commotion and just sounded like it went on and on endlessly.  It’s an unfortunate finale, leaving some customers puzzled, as the rest of the film couldn’t have been more meticulously well-constructed, quiet, restrained, uncompromising, and well acted, always finding the right tone between the two characters, who could never marry or even consummate their love, as Keats was an English gentleman.  Certainly the Romantics were fond of suffering, and the initial bliss of love in this relationship is replaced by a tortuous longing for which there is no release, not even after death.  Such is the power of being in the everlasting grasp of love.    

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