Monday, September 28, 2009

Bright Star

Writer-director Jane Campion came up with the idea for Bright Star while sitting with “a ragtag group of horses I used to like to sit with and read,” she told the audience after a September 14 screening at the Director’s Guild Theater. When one of the horses delicately opened Campion’s bag with her hoof and sniffed it, Campion says: “I thought, that’s what I like, that kind of tenderness and gentleness. I wanted to make a story about that.”

Mission accomplished. This deeply felt, exquisitely tender love story is infused with a closely observed specificity that ushers us into the world of the great English Romantic poet John Keats (a luminescent, gently charismatic Ben Whishaw) and the woman he loved.

Campion’s screenplay animates the story of Keats and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a stylish and strongminded young woman. It begins in 1818, when Keats is 23 and Fanny just 16. Keats’ poetry has been mostly badly reviewed and brings in almost no money, so he lives in genteel poverty, dependent on the patronage of his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider.) As a result, he can’t marry Fanny after they fall in love, since he is too honorable to marry a woman he cannot support. Instead, the two embark on a passionate, deeply tender, but sexless
affair, which lasts until Keats' death of consumption at age 25.

Like Keats' love poems, Bright Star is an intimate story that contains a whole world. Cinematographer Grieg Fraser captures an astonishingly gorgeous England, starkly beautiful in the winter and bursting with colors and life in the spring and summer. The yellow-white sunlight, the wind rustling through the leaves, and the shock of nature’s beauty are near-hallucinogenic at times.

Campion makes you feel the pressures and pleasures of early 19th-century English society, but this is no stilted costume drama. It’s the story of two vivid individuals whose feelings and motivations feel as compelling as our own – if not more so.

To create that sense of intimacy, Campion spent most of the rehearsal time getting the actors to stop acting. “I really wanted to have a sense of just being from the actors,” she said at the screening. “Whenever people were relaxed and the work was coming from that place, that’s when it felt right.”

To help the actors get past their own neuroses to that state of grace, she talked to them about “Keats’s concept of negative capability – a capacity to stay with the mystery of life, without having to create any answers.”

Keats’ own poetry was one route to that mystery, but Campion knew that a movie about poetry would be a hard sell. “People are allergic to poetry, kind of,” she said. “And they don’t just dislike it; they’re really aggressive about it.” By weaving excerpts from Keats’ letters and poems and talk about poetry organically into the script (“poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery,” he tells Fanny), Campion makes poetry part of the action, using it to deepen the intensity of the characters’ emotions.

Another “important talisman” for the cast was Fanny’s much-younger sister, Toots. Edie Martin, the gravely graceful little sprite who plays her, doesn’t have many lines yet plays a significant role, attracting the camera like a magnet. Campion said the young actress “embodied that quality of delicacy, just naturally. From the start, she had what the others were striving for, and they saw it.”

And now and then, the camera seeks out the Brawne family’s cat, a pacific black-and-white beauty that is, like all cats, a master of the art of living in the moment.

Bright Star’s impassioned but unconsummated love affair is a switch from the eroticism of Campion movies like The Piano and In the Cut, but the film falls in line with Campion’s others in one important way: There's a strong, free-thinking woman at its center.

In her own day and for decades after her death, Fanny was painted as shallow and insincere, a selfish flirt incapable of matching Keats’ depth of feeling or appreciating his genius. More recently, she has often been put on a pedestal, idealized as a sort of human muse. Campion rescues her from both forms of erasure, creating her most self-assured heroine yet.

The Fanny imagined by Campion and embodied by Cornish is self-confident, forthright, competent and kind. Hollywood rarely gives us female leads with that kind of strength and solidity, and that’s a shame. Because it’s those traits that make Fanny a fit mate for a soulful poet, and that pairing of great-hearted equals makes Bright Star a great romance.

Are you listening, Sandra Bullock?

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