Combustible Celluloid
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With: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Thomas Sangster, Paul Schneider, Samuel Barnett, Kerry Fox, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Samuel Roukin, Olly Alexander, Sebastian Armesto, Joyia Fitch, Alfred Harmsworth, Jonathan Aris, Adrian Schiller, Edie Martin
Written by: Jane Campion
Directed by: Jane Campion
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking
Running Time: 119
Date: 05/15/2009

Bright Star (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Keats Dreams

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though it credits Andrew Motion's 1999 book Keats as a source, Jane Campion's screenplay for Bright Star is technically an "original" work. It's not a biopic, and it's not concerned with the facts of the life of poet John Keats (1795-1821). It doesn't care when or where he was born, or how he came to be a poet or found his first moment of inspiration. Indeed, he doesn't exist until the moment his true love and muse, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), walks into the room. The movie hovers just above moments of fact and reportage, resting almost totally on a cloud of passion and emotion. The fact that Keats was one of the greatest romantic poets is merely a bonus and an excuse for some gorgeous, glorious dialogue.

In the great romance movies, the lovers must be kept apart by outside forces, and in this case, Keats and Fanny are forbidden to marry simply because Keats lacks a steady income and has incurred some severe debts. (At this point, he has published a book of poems, but -- like so many other greats -- it was not appreciated in his own time.) Additionally, Keats lives with his benefactor and friend Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider -- trying on a thick Scottish accent), with whom he shares a complex relationship. Mr. Brown likewise fancies himself a poet, but knows that Keats is far beyond his own abilities. He reacts harshly and sarcastically to Fanny and her adoration for Keats, perhaps because he sees her as a rival to his friendship, but also perhaps because he would like to be the recipient of her affections. (The movie remains deliciously ambiguous.) Regardless, Fanny sees Mr. Brown as little more than a pest.

Campion's new film otherwise moves in a series of episodes as the lovers are allowed a few minutes of bliss together, and then for various reasons torn apart. The centerpiece is their first kiss: a magical piece of cinema that moves dreamily, cautiously, without any incidental music and surrounded by Campion's trademark poetic landscape. During a picnic, they wander off into the reeds and Keats tells Fanny of a dream he had in which he was kissing a figure. She boldly wonders allowed if it was her; their eyes avoid one another before meeting, and they kiss. They're interrupted by Fanny's "chaperone," i.e. her little sister Toots (Edie Martin), and they break it off as quickly and as shyly as if the police had caught them. But afterward, their demeanor has changed. The grand romance, confirmed, has begun. During their next moments alone, Fanny gazes out the window as the breeze flutters the white curtain back into her face, and Keats climbs up to a treetop and lies back with his eyes closed. This must be one of the simplest, but most powerful gestures of first love ever captured on film.

In another sequence, Keats has gone away with his benefactor for the summer, and Fanny awaits his first letter, eventually becoming physically ill with longing and taking to her bed. When the letter actually arrives, it contains a memorable passage about butterflies ("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") and Fanny's physical revival and exuberance is presented as something visual and palpable. She even collects her own butterfly farm and lets the winged creatures loose in her room for one dazzling sequence of pure bliss.

Now, I normally hate literary/costume pieces, but that's because they're usually too slavish to the printed source material and never blossom as cinema (they generally view cinema as an inferior art form to literature). Moreover, there's a fetish for old-fashioned costumes and props that seems to satisfy many viewers all by itself, regardless of the movie. Campion avoids both of these trappings by focusing on the visual and the tactile above all. Her use of weather and landscape is far more interesting than her interpretation of some old dry text. In one powerful scene, the three central characters have a blowup argument, but not before Keats has managed to march, in a huff, out into the middle of the woods, surrounded by bare, spindly trees. It has just finished raining, and the trio is all wet and cold, and they must step over fallen branches to get anywhere. It hardly matters what the characters actually say in this scene; you can see what's going on.

Bright Star is unquestionably the most straightforward movie of Campion's career, and perhaps her most accessible; it even lacks the troublesome thematic depths of The Piano. I have been a fan of Campion's popular works as well as her more marginalized films like Holy Smoke (1999) and In the Cut (2003); those films maintained her personal vision even as the themes, images and ideas stretched toward the bizarre and outrageous. It's possible that even her fans will see Bright Star as something of a sell-out, especially since it doesn't deal directly with any issues of sexuality, and it doesn't appear to burrow very far beneath the surface of a typical tragic love story. But I think it's one of the year's best films, partly because it illustrates how beautifully Campion can adapt her style to -- and improve upon -- an archetypal film genre, but partly because it's just so damn beautiful.

Dedicated to DT.

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