Synopsis: The film centers on John Keats, the great romantic poet, through the eyes of his love and inspiration – Fanny Brawne, the stylish, headstrong girl next door. Inspired by the actual love letters between the couple and Keats’ sublime poetry, Bright Star will reveal a great untold love story from the heart of one of literature’s most treasured and tragic figures. The intense but doomed relationship produced some of the most beautiful verse and passionate letters ever written. The focus on the impetuous Fanny and her relationship with Keats makes for an intimate and lively story rather than an emotionally removed historical retelling.
CANNES: Jane Campion’s Bright Star has probably been the 2009 Cannes film festival’s most anticipated film. After a lengthy sabbatical from features, would the former Palme D’Or winner return in top form sixteen years following her triumphant and dramatic exit from the Riviera in 1993 as the first female winner of the coveted prize? Or would this movie follow the vein of what most critics regard as lesser, flawed subsequent works such as Holy Smoke and In The Cut?
Would the romantic sensual impulse that fuelled her strongest films (An Angel at My Table, Portrait of a Lady, and especially The Piano), still be a driving force for the now more mature auteur? If so, would Campion’s depiction of the price that women pay for passion, still be as profoundly poignant? There were a lot of questions to be asked.
Campion fans can rest assured. Not only has she retained her romantic impulse, but in Bright Star she has fused it with a celebration of the power of art (in this case, poetry), and created a potent, pure, (if somewhat idealised), homage to both.
The very subject matter naturally lends itself to a romantic celebration: the intense, tragic three-year love affair between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) – one of the greatest Romantic poets in the English language – and his Hampstead neighbour Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Theirs was a romance thwarted in its prime by external obstacles and Campion’s depiction is instilled with the tragic dimensions of great art.
As in her other vintage works, performance, mapped and-fine tuned by a superb script, heightened here by the actual language of Keats’ poetry and underscored by Mark Bradhsaw’s unusually haunting score, become the road map to the movie’s core. As the story moves from detachment to mild interest to growing attachment and tenderness, Fanny becomes our compass to the soul of the sensitive poet. Her growing interest, discovery of and involvement in his poetry takes us, too, on a journey of discovery.
One of Campion’s strong instincts is casting and she doesn’t put a foot wrong here. It’s a brilliant ensemble simultaneously buoyed by some outstanding individual performances. The slightly rumpled Whishaw creates an affable, sensitive, intense but witty Keats, talented yet in his love life, with an edge of boyish naivete. Kerry Fox as Fanny’s mother peels parental objection to reveal a deep compassion; Edie Martin as Toots, her youngest daughter/Fanny’s sister brings welcome comedy, virtually stealing every scene she’s in.
But unquestionably, it’s Abbie Cornish who emerges as the film’s astonishing discovery. Since her debut here in 2003 in Un Certain Regard, in Cate Shortland’s Somersault, she has been marked as an upcoming talent, consolidated by subsequent turns in Neil Armfield’s Candy and other movies. But Campion – as she has with so many other actors in the past – lifts Cornish’s performance to another level. Her journey from flamboyant coquette to impassioned altruist is unsentimental, conveyed with a mix of quiet but steely understatement and compassionate tenderness that is likely to catapult her from talented starlet to thespian top league. She certainly deserves to be one of the top contenders here and all the way to the Oscars.
Avoiding the clichés of period films, Campion and her long-time collaborator, art director /costume designer, Janet Patterson (whose work on The Piano was inspirational) create potent iconic visual metaphors to subliminally echo the film’s connotations.
For Fanny, sewing is a central image and thread of the film; established by the extreme close up at its outset. But the light-coloured thread darkens with the movie’s progress until it finally turns to black. Similarly, Patterson shifts the ambience through the language of clothes, particularly in the case of Fanny. The flamboyant bright reds and whites of the early scenes morph into simple muted tones as her inner life becomes more enriched by her love.
Australian cinematographer, Greig Fraser, a former art photographer, whose work has showcased at Cannes in Short Film Palme D’Or winner, Glendyn Ivin’s Cracker Bag and Tony Krawitz’s Directors’ fortnight short, Jewboy, has worked with Campion on the 60th Cannes anniversary short, The Lady Bug and United Nations Shorts project, the Water Diary.
They create here, under the name of simplicity, an exquisite interplay of dark/light, interiors/exteriors, seasonal contrasts that is provides an arresting artistry. The last wintry scenes in Italy contrast with the summery seasonal verve at the height of the romance.
If Campion intended to inspire an appreciation and rediscovery of Keats’ poetry, she has not only succeeded but herself created an artistic monument to his life, love, poetry and soul. And with the casting has re-invented Keats for new generations.
Jane Campion's best work since The Piano
**** (4 STARS): Bright Star, Jane Campion’s astutely detailed romantic drama, is the New Zealand born filmmaker’s best work since The Piano, her epochal 1993 masterpiece. It is confirmation that the writer/director, and her female protagonists, respond to an environment of barriers and carefully delineated boundaries – when these are absent, per her last film, 2003’s contemporary sexual thriller In the Cut, Campion is without direction.
But Bright Star, the story of the chaste romance between a then unknown John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his neighbour, Frances “Fanny” Brawne (Abbie Cornish), over the final three years of the posthumously acclaimed poet’s life, is not easily defined as a period piece. Campion, to begin with, is never overwhelmed by production and costume design. When you first see Fanny she is intricately stitching a design – she’s a dedicated follower of fashion – and the film is attuned to a similar idea, that of intimate creation as opposed to the overwhelming finished aesthetic.
Campion presents the two households, on the edge of a then semi-rural Hampstead Heath, as being busy, involved organisms; social mores are observed but not always adhered to. Overseen by her widowed mother (Kerry Fox, completing a liaison begun two decades ago in Campion’s An Angel at My Table), Fanny is governed by a liberal outlook. She will not be forced to marry, although there is an acknowledgment of the practicalities of matrimony; ultimately she cannot wed Keats because he cannot support himself, let alone a wife.
The relationship between Keats and Brawne, chaste aside from the meeting of lips and the holding of hands, unfolded between 1818 and 1820 – he passed away the following year, on his way to Italy in a belated attempt to lessen his tuberculosis. In the film, however, Campion has designed it as something of a triangle, with American actor Paul Schneider (Lars and the Real Girl) as Keats’ benefactor and a constant presence. Charles Armitage Brown was but a middling poet and that makes him willing to support the gifted Keats, but also covetous and demanding. In his own way he loves Keats before Fanny does, and it makes for a clash of values between them that starts at impudent and ends with recrimination.
It is obvious, and easy, to note the fine casting of Whishaw as the melancholy, burdened poet who finds a life outside the written word and Cornish as the determined but sometimes struggling young woman trying to hold onto him, but Schneider’s bark eventually reveals a pain of its own. Campion has made him essential to the story, for a casual assignation he undertakes, motivated in part by Keats finding happiness with Fanny, leaves him unable to support his friend. His apology to Fanny for that, both furious and aggrieved, stays with you.
Across the film, however, Bright Star is not a work of culmination and highlights; it unfolds as opposed to building. Keats’ tragic fate is a given, so Campion – who was inspired by Andrew Motion’s 1998 biography of Keats – does not reach for a biopic’s standard finale. The storyline moves through the seasons and it exists in the moment, with the director alighting on illuminative moments that catch both the mood and various daily rituals. Fanny, and the audience, know that Keats’ days are limited, and that is used to reflect on what has passed instead of gorging on grief.
Poems by Keats, such as the titular sonnet and “Ode to a Nightingale”, are heard, but Campion doesn’t try and cast the storyline as easy inspiration, instead the relationship and his output co-exist. The picture also makes use of Fanny, a novice to poetry, as a guide. As she tries to learn about what Keats does, mocked along the way by Brown, so does the audience. It is a simple, unassuming device, an example of craft serving art.
Campion’s female leads can often be defined by the looming threat that hangs over them, but in Bright Star Fanny is faced with Keats’ looming expiration. That threat, of having something you love extinguished as opposed to suffering a blow to your own self, is a breakthrough for Campion and it gives the film a contemplative tone. Even at moments of pure happiness, such as when the shy Keats finally dances with Fanny, the present is being placed as a memory for when it will be required in the dark future. That’s something the cinema does for all of us, and it helps make Bright Star a surprisingly broad and detailed canvas. Love, like the works of John Keats, is timeless.
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