Bright Star (2009): Jane Campion’s Solid, Unexciting Biopic of Poet John Keats

Cannes Film Fest 2009 (In competition)–A solid but unexciting rendition of the final years of the legendary poet John Keats, who died at the young age of 25, Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” is an intimate, small-scale period drama, centering on the relationship of Keats with his 18-year-old neighbor, the plain looking Fanny Brawne.

 

“Bright Star” world premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, which is responsible for launching Campion’s career back in the late 1980s showing her shorts.  After traveling the festival road, playing at Toronto Film Fest and others, Apparition, the new distribution company headed by the brilliant Bob Berney, the film will open theatrically on September 18, 2009.

 

While the writing, also by Campion, avoids the usual cliches and melodramatic signposts of most Hollywood (and non-Hollywood) literary biopics, “Bright Stars” lacks deep insights about what inspired Keats as a poet and what made him such a unique figure of art and letters.

 

Even so, Campion has not made a good (or any) film in years, arguably since “Portrait of a Lady,” which received mixed critical reception and was a commercial flop, and so “Bright Stars” represents a comeback of sorts for the director, who reached her height in 1993 winning the Palme d’Or and and the Screenplay Oscar  for the “The Piano,” still her best work by far, but has not been able to match that achievement over the past 16 years.

 

“Bright Star” is a peculiar feature, one in which every element but the writing is solid (the direction, the acting, the production design, costumes, and music) and yet the overall impression is that of a movie that could have been much more emotionally touching, much more illuminating about its dramatis persona and poetry as an art form. Thus, my reaction to the film is definitely mixed; I wanted it to be better. 

 

That said, there’s much to be praised about the film, which received its world premiere at the Cannes Film Fest (in competition) and will be released stateside later this year by Bob Berney’s new districution company (as yet unnamed).  In today’s brutal economic movie market, dominated by teens, it’s doubtful that “Bright Star” would go very far beyond the art film circuit.  In look, shape and form, it’s old-fashioned arthouse of yesteryear.

 

The story begins in London in 1818, when the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), then 23, meets Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a student of fashion.  The first encounter between Keats and Fanny, like all male-female meetings in Campion’s films, is awkward, to say the least.  The unlikely couple begins their relationship at odds:  Keats looks down at Fanny as a stylish minx, and she admits her lack of appreciation for art and literature.

The mostly indoor tale is largely set in two houses in Hampstead Village, North London.  The home of the Brawne family is headed by the matriarch-widow Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox), who has three children:  Fanny, who’s 18, teenager Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and young and vivid Toots (Edie Martin).  The other residence is occupied by Brown (Paul Schneider) and Keats.

Though Campion doesn’t imbue the text with an overtly feminist approach the way she has in her other features, including the made for TV projects, it’s clear what attracted her to the subject.  Like her previous features, this one is more about its strong heroine, Fanny, than about any of the men, Keats, Brown, or his brother.  Also not surprisingly, Fanny is appealing but not particularly attractive and while embodying the qualities of an ordinary, literally “girl next door” type, she comes across, like all of Campion’s protags, as articulate and outspoken—considring the rigid sexual mores and other conventions of the times.

For Campion, the film itself is “a kind of a ballad, like Keats’ ‘Eve of St Agnes,’ with the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne progressing in verses.” As writer, she charts quite methodically their growing involvement and gradual attachment, while not neglecting the nearly insurmountable obstacles around them.

Initially, what draws the couple together is the fatal illness of Keats’ younger brother.  Genuinely touched by her kindness, warm heart, and efforts to help, Keats agrees to teach her lessons in poetry.  Needless to say, all those around Keats and Fane are alarmed and against the affair.  They include Fanny’s  mother and Keats’ best friend  Brown.  Brooding and angry, Brown is protective of Keats, which means he is dismissive of Fanny and and rude to her, doing all he can to keep her away from his friend, whom he tirelessly helps.

Nonetheless, despite all obstacles, the relationships assumes its own logic with sort of an unstoppable movement, if not dramatic urgency. Unfolding as a yarn of first love, “Bright Star” depicts Keats and Fanny as being intensely, hopelessly and helplessly absorbed in each other, occasionally swept into experiencing new sensations.

Campion, who had staged wildly erotic scenes in previous films, here tries to convey romantic attachment in a more subtle and understated way.  By his own confession, the inexperienced Keats says he is perplexed about women, and Wishaw, who’s slim, effete and even androgynous in looks, captures well the frail, sensitive poet, whose family history, illness, and lack of financial means signal problems.  There are some quiet scenes, in which Keats, slender and frail, rests his head on the shoulders or boxom of Fanny whose height, shape and stature overwhelm him.  As played by Whishaw, he’s more of a child seeing protection in the arms of a strong woman than a mature man driven by sexual urges.  If memory serves, the closest to an erotic scene is an embrace an d kiss on the lips, but there’s not a single sex scene in the entire picture, which is rather odd considering the obsession between the lovers that Campion tries to convey.

The first part of the film is more compelling and invoving than the second, in which Campion is forced to relate some basic facts about the relationship and its ultimate demise due to social circumstances. The pair became unofficially engaged in October 1819, but they never got married.  Stricken with tuberculosis, Keats left Britain for the warmer climate of Rome in 1820, after which he never saw Fany again; he died in February 1821 at the age of 25.  His final poem was simply called “To Fanny.”

Major problem of “Bright Star” as a movie is that we don’t understand Keats’s stupendous bursts of creativity and productivity between 1819 and 1820, and we seldom get a real feeling of what he wrote about other than what’s discussed explicitly in the text. After all, Keats produced in that short period of time three of his most beautiful and celebrated poems, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Ode on Melnacholy” (my personal favorite of the trio), and “Ode to a Nightingale.” 

I also think it’s a mistake to have the actors recite aloud the love letters that the characters had exchanged between them.  In this respect, “Bright Star” is too conventional a movie for a director of  Campion’s staure.

Occasionally, Campion stumbles with the pacing of her occasionally too verbose drama and her refusal to punctuate the high points in the turbulent relationship of Keats and Fanny result in a moderate and restrained film, with quite a few boring moments and one too many walks in the woods, probably for the sake of opening up the largely interior medlodrama.

Despite problems, the acting of the two leads is excellent.  After playing secondary roles in several films, Abbie Cornish takes centerstage here as Fanny Brawne, in a dominant and immersive performance that makes her unrecognizable. 

 

Cast

 

Fanny Brawne – Abbie Cornish
John Keats –Ben Wishaw
Mr. Brown –Paul Schneider
Mrs. Brawne – Kerry Fox
Toots – Edie Martin
Samuel – Thomas Brodie-Sangster
Maria Dilke – Claudie Blakley
Charles Dilke – Gerard Monaco
Abigail –Antonia Campbell Hughes


Credits

 

A Pathe, Screen Australia, BBC Films and the UK Film Council presentation in association with the New South Wales Film and Tlelevision Office and Hopscotch International of a Jan Chapman production in association with Carole Hewitt.

(Internationa sales: Pathe International, London.)

Produced by Chapman, Hewitt.

Executive producers, Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Christine Langan, David M. Thompson.

Directed, written by Janes Campion, based on the biography “Keats” by Andrew Motion.