Monday, October 12, 2009
Bright Star - My Review
I’ve always admired the films of Jane Campion. I know that The Piano is what she is acclaimed for, but my personal favorite has always been The Portrait of a Lady. Suffice to say, she sure can make fantastic period films. Her attention to detail when it comes to production design, sets, props, costumes, hair, etc. is astounding and she shows it off in such inventive ways: a character takes off their period shoes, picks one up and smells it, another traps a moth under a period drinking glass, here’s a close up of the back of this character’s neck so you can see how perfect their period hair is, and another rubs the soft feather of their period quill under their nose and over their lips. I revel in these details.
I went to see her new film, Bright Star, yesterday and well, I have a new favorite Jane Campion film. It’s the story of the last years of the English Romantic poet John Keats and his doomed love affair with the literal girl next door, Fanny Brawne, as seen from her point of view. It’s a magical film. Quiet, beautiful, restrained.
There were some shots in the film that were so gorgeous that I found my breath catching in my throat watching them. Fanny, John, and little Toots bend to smell each individual flower in the garden. Fanny sits on her bed, her room is all cool, soothing whites and blues, she clutches John’s letter in her hands, and a wind blows her curtain inward so that the ends of it nearly touch her face. Fanny, so rapturously in love, lies down in a field of purple flowers and as her young sister drops down at her side Fanny kisses the girl’s face and tells her she loves her. After John writes her a letter that says, “I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain,” Fanny has her siblings catch butterflies and transport them into her bedroom where she starts a butterfly farm so that soon there are butterflies perched on every surface as she rereads John’s letters over and over again. John climbs a flowering tree and literally lies down on the top of it. Fanny, in black, walks out onto a snow covered Hampstead Heath. I don’t remember the last time I saw a film so stunningly beautiful.
The acting is also excellent. Usually in Jane Campion’s films, the actors are allowed to chew the scenery now and then and sometimes even stray slightly into overacting. This time, Campion showed an enormous amount of restraint with her actors. Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw as our doomed lovers are remarkable as individuals and as a couple. The arc of their relationship was completely believable: from their early skepticism of one another, to their teacher/student relationship, to their passionate epistolary romance, to their pure and unequivocal love. Kerry Fox as Mrs. Brawne was the mother that any girl must have wanted in that time period: understanding yet realistic, and firm but not pushy. I must say I didn’t even recognize Kerry Fox and was shocked when I saw her name listed in the credits! Paul Schneider as Charles Brown, Keats’ friend and benefactor, who scrupulously tries to protect him from entrapment by Fanny, who he considers their intellectual unequal, stole most scenes he was in. I’ve always adored Paul Schneider in his myriad lovable loser roles and it was nice to see him stretch himself in this. His Irish brogue was well done, and his performance had fire and vitality. The scene where he admits that in the end he failed his friend John Keats is heartbreaking.
And ultimately the story is a heart breaker. We all know what is going to happen. Even if you don’t already know John Keats’ story, you can see the signs throughout the film. My tears started when little Toots, Fanny’s sister, tells Keats she loves him before he leaves for warmer climes in Italy where he hopes to restore his health. And the tears didn’t stop until well after the ending credits were over. This was also where Abbie Cornish really shined. Her scene of devastation should be taught in acting classes.
In the end I only have one criticism and it’s so minor that I almost wasn’t going to mention it, but it’s kind of funny so I will. Paul Schneider as Charles Brown has this odd pot belly and wears these ridiculous green plaid pants throughout the film. I want to know if he really gained weight for the role, or if they stuffed him with a pillow! Most of the time I didn’t notice it, but there are a few scenes when it really stuck out and made me laugh, it looked so silly. Although, maybe that was the point. Maybe Campion wants you to laugh at this character; he is the “villain” of the story after all. Unless you count tuberculosis as a villain!
But do you want to know the sign for me that this movie was really great? Despite my sobbing, I immediately wanted to watch the movie again. I think I’m going to go back sometime this week.
The title of the film is taken from a poem John wrote for Fanny:
Bright star, would I were steadfast 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 steadfast, 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.