In the Very Temple of Delight
2009 // UK - Australia - France // Jane Campion // September 27, 2009 // Theatrical Print
A- - Jane Campion's new film, Bright Star, is positively swollen with exquisite sorrow. Unabashed and yet sober in her embrace of the romantic, Campion exhibits a shrewd talent for blending personal and cultural understandings of love, and Bright Star is further, devastating proof of her instincts. In presenting the tale of the relationship between seamstress Fanny Brawne and the English poet John Keats, Bright Star relies on the viewer's own romantic reference points as well as their understanding of generic tropes. The film slathers on the components of a textbook romantic tragedy: a soul in creative torment, attraction concealed behind bickering, social barriers that suffocate the lovers, a meddlesome third party, emotions that quickly veer from ecstatic to distraught, and a world that seems almost malevolent to love. Campion assembles these well-worn elements into a whole that is not only deeply affecting, but also visually and aurally compelling. Bright Star does not ask for our indulgence. It earns it, by sweeping us along into a world where poetry expresses what blunt declarations, and even physical intimacies, cannot. It operates much like poetry itself. To borrow a phrase from Campion's masterpiece, The Piano, it is not so much an account of a chaste love affair as it is a mood that passes through you.
The characters of Bright Star do not know what we know, of course. They are unaware that John Keats would perish of tuberculosis at age twenty-five, and that he would one day be regarded as a titan among the English romantic poets. Campion presents Keats (Ben Wishaw) as an admired figure within a small literary circle, but a penniless man, supported by friends, frequently excoriated by contemporary critics. Campion is not attempting anything so banal as a biopic, however, and so the film observes Keats primarily from the perspective of the true protagonist, Fanny (Abbie Cornish), whose family knows the poet and eventually rents half of the country house where Keats and his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) live. Fanny has a quick wit and is renowned for the exquisite clothing she designs and sews herself. In the curious social landscape of early nineteenth century England, she seems to be of a higher station than Keats, a mere starving artist with no prospects. Keats is troubled, roiled by a witch's brew of existential terror, as personified by his ill brother, and professional insecurity. He is charming and brilliant as both a creator and a theorist, but failure haunts him.
Fanny has little interest in poetry, yet there is something in Keats that pulls at her, despite (or perhaps due to) the shadows that seem to trail behind him. She is a modern woman, thoroughly unconcerned with gossip and proud of her own craft. She works her way into Keats' life with gestures that are simultaneously transparent and genuine: she bakes his ailing brother biscuits, makes him a pillow slip, invites him to Christmas dinner, and asks for instruction in poetry appreciation. The exact moment when their relationship evolves from friendship to love is uncertain, but after they share a few gentle kisses in the woods, their demeanor around each other changes. In one of the film's most lovely shots, they follow Fannie's young sister, Margaret (Edie Marten), stealing kisses and holding hands when her back is turned, freezing comically when she glances at them. Campion magnificently conveys the sense of two people who revel in the presence of one another, but probably could not explain precisely why they find such delight there. That Fannie and Keats were so often denied this simple pleasure makes their story all the more bittersweet.
Fanny's family never stands in her way, but her mother (Kerry Fox) is concerned for her daughter's future. Campion and her performers convey as much though glances and body language as through words, establishing all that we need to know about the personalities of the Brawne family. Little brother Samuel (Thomas Sanster) barely speaks, but his loyalty to both his mother and Fanny, and the way those loyalties rend him, is in stark evidence. The most active antagonist in the tale is Brown, who endeavors to drive Fanny away with sheer cruelty, motivated almost certainly by jealously (perhaps sexual). Doom coils through the film, and not merely because of the death that we know is looming. The lovers are boxed in by financial and social realities, and they cannot envision an escape. Their hopes for the future are limited to their next meeting. When Keats moves to the Isle of Wight for a summer to write, their correspondence is filled with rapturous highs and despairing lows. Fanny waits expectantly for the postman, and on days when no letter comes, she is inconsolable.
Campion ushers us into Fanny's story after she and Keats have already become acquainted, as attraction starts to take root and grow into something more. The exclusion of a portentous first encounter is telling. While Bright Star has the veneer of a conventional romantic narrative, Campion is more focused on permitting her viewers' minds to settle over the emotional curvatures of her characters. The process of romance, the little physical and emotional events that accumulate into something ineffable, is secondary to the sensation of romance, a mood that powers the film's dynamos. Perhaps more than any other English-language film-maker who tackles matters of the heart, Campion understands the strength of her chosen medium. Her film gazes lovingly as the seasons slip by, but there is more than rough symbolism at work in her use of blossoms, leaves, and snow. Campion appreciates the relationship between place, time, and feeling, and the way that memories we cherish are so often bound to the sensations that cascade over us in that moment. Thus the feeling when a lover first touched our hand is linked inextricably with Christmas tea and a roaring hearth. As with The Piano, Campion presents images that are both aesthetically arresting and emotionally resonant, establishing a pensive, almost nostalgic intimacy between audience and character. Her cinematic approach is always balanced just on the edge of metaphor without, amazingly enough, ever succumbing to glibness. It's not that love is like sitting in a room filled with butterflies, or that grief is like walking through a gray, snowbound forest. Rather, by presenting Fanny in such situations, the film finds expression for emotional states that resist more cerebral scrutiny.
Bright Star is not free of missteps. The whipsaw character of Fanny's mood backfires at times, as when she goes from euphoric to suicidal in a single cut, and as a result the viewer's empathy for her plight starts to dry up. The film plods in its final twenty or thirty minutes, as Keats' miserable demise looms closer and his relationship with Fanny seems to become more static, all in the misguided attempt to wring as much anguish as possible from tragedy. Yet Campion's film is still a potent illustration of how uniquely suited cinema is to telling stories that rely on the interaction between the senses and the heart. This is not a film about John Keats, or about Fanny Brawne, or about life in nineteenth century England. It's about love and death, and how much it hurts that life has to contain both.