Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bright Star: The Body of Poetry

Jane Campion has succeeded in making a hyper-physical movie about a Romantic poet whose body is failing him and a woman whose art consists in sewing elaborate garments to cover nearly every inch of the human form. That she has done so is testament to her intelligent filmmaking and to the consistency of her vision for Bright Star, the story of John Keats’ relationship with Fanny Brawne. Every aspect of the film—from its opening hyper-close-up of a needle piercing fabric, to the astounding performance of Abbie Cornish—works to convey the idea, or rather the feeling, of poetry. Campion has made a movie about poetry that unwinds Wordsworth’s famous definition. If poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility, Campion takes us back through the poetry to the raw emotions that produced it. (read an interview with Campion here)

Those emotions find their superb voice in Cornish. There is nothing histrionic about her performance. In fact, she carries herself with a stillness that somehow manages to focus the viewer’s attention all the more on her physical presence. She has the ability of the best actors to register subtle shifts of feeling with tiny changes in expression. But more than that, she presents love, sadness, grief as physical sensations so palpable that we can’t help but share them. Since it’s common knowledge that Keats died at twenty-five, it isn’t spoiling the plot to refer to the scene in which Cornish’s Fanny learns of his death. This scene alone, which includes some lovely acting by Kerry Fox, would be enough to make Bright Star worth seeing.

In writing the screenplay, Campion had the challenge of how to represent the writing of poetry, and how to work the text of that poetry into the film without making it seem artificial. Unlike the scenes of Shakespeare’s mad writing frenzies in Shakespeare in Love, or Jane Austen’s ecstatic all-nighter in Becoming Jane, Campion gives us images of Ben Whishaw as Keats doing a variety of things that actually resemble acts of writing. Sometimes with the supervision of his protector Charles Armitage Brown, Whishaw’s Keats sits and stares, he jots notes, he composes aloud, he pores over scraps on which parts of a poem are scrawled out of order, and he recites a new poem from memory, seeming to form it even as he recollects it.

As naturally as the poetry is created, so too is it spoken—either within the narrative of the film or as voice-over (notably with the film’s final credits, which it is worth staying for). When Keats and Brawne take turns reciting lines from La Belle Dame Sans Merci, it isn’t as if they’re reciting at all. They’re taking the poetry back to the passion that lies beneath it.

Though Bright Star finishes with the sound of Whishaw’s voice reciting a poem over the credits, the film opens with an image that signals its central concern. We see an extended shot of a needle and thread filmed in such tight close-up that the needle looks like a pike and the thread like a hawser. This is Fanny Brawne’s art—fashion—and while she creates distinctive and intricate garments for herself, there is nothing delicate about her or her art. Assertive and confident, she makes no apologies for her dedication to what she herself calls the superficial things (along with flirting and dancing). She is an innovator, proudly announcing that hers is the first dress in two counties to feature a mushroom collar. A lesser film-maker might have allowed this story to become a quasi-feminist equation between the famous poet and the unsung designer. In Campion’s hands, Bright Star is instead an exploration of Fanny Brawne’s experience of making, quite literally, her place in the world—through her clothes, her curiosity, and her emotions.

If there is one weakness in Campion’s film, it is in the puzzling absence of artist’s errors. We never see Fanny’s scissors waver; we never see her tear out a hem. Nor do we ever see Keats labor for a word as we certainly see him (and later Fanny) labor for breath. It’s an odd depiction, actually: artists for whom art seems to come easily, whose ideas all seem to make creative sense. With her camera’s emphasis on the concrete materials of her protagonists’ arts—fabric and paper filmed in extreme close-up—it’s as if Campion wants to insist that art is nothing more than the diligent execution of a fluently conceived idea.

Then again, this is what Keats was describing when he coined the term "negative capability," the ability to reside in uncertainty, to forego "any irritable reaching after fact or reason." An artist experiencing this state of mind is content simply with beauty and with what Keats called half-knowledge. Could it be, then, that Campion's film is true to Keats not only in evoking his life's great love, but also by replicating the conditions in which he wrote his greatest poetry?


  1. Just saw this last night and appreciated your perceptive review.

  2. Thanks for reading! And glad you saw the film--which deserves to be more widely known.