Bright Star - Movie Review
JANE CAMPION'S CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT
by Kevin Bowen
published November 1, 2009
now playing nationwide
In Bright Star, the
poet John Keats explains poetry as: going into a lake only with a mind to luxuriate there, not to think about how to swim to
This could be known as the Jane Campion dilemma, named after the
film’s talented, maddening director, who always gets caught thinking about how to swim to shore. Sometimes she swims to shore even when she’s not
in the lake. At her best she is the absolute master of ritual, passion and restraint. At her worst, she is an over-decorator of temporarily
fashionable received wisdom that doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of the camera.
The referendum for this dilemma is the moment in The Piano when Holly Hunter takes the plunge overboard strapped to the sinking ivories. Even the film’s
admirers must admit this is an overly poetic gesture that nearly takes the film down to Davy Jones’ Locker with it, redeemed only by the
shockingly sudden revelation of her first words. And if you’ve seen the last half hour of Holy Smoke!,
then you know … Holy Smoke!
With the immaculate Bright Star, Campion allows us for once to
swim to the middle of the lake and not worry about the shore, to simply luxuriate in her story of passion and her quiet directorial
ferocity. Bright Star finds her at her most relaxed, most charming, most intellectually subtle
and most passionate.
The story of the three-year 19th Century love affair between Keats
and his neighbor Fannie Brawne, Bright Star is foremost about wildly passionate love. But given
Keats’ early death, it is not an easy story of love. If things don’t work, there’s no going back to the architect Mom likes. It’s love as
mystical investment, as frightening as it can be joyous. It also relates what it is like to be loved so thoroughly as to inspire some of the
English language’s greatest words.
But this is not Keats’ film but that of Brawne, and
Bright Star is a tribute to seduction and the mystique of feminine beauty. I say tribute quite
deliberately. While American films associate seduction with feminine threat, here it is viewed as the greatest inspiration. Keats’ obnoxious
best friend Charles Brown might dismiss Fannie’s talent for lovely and colorful dressmaking as flirtation and frippery; but we are invited to
see it as the maximization of feminine adornment and her natural power. She cannot match her lover’s words with a pen, so she does so with a
needle. As she is the muse for Keats’ poetry, he becomes – first exuberantly and then poignantly – the muse for her own form of
Ben Whishaw never once lets you doubt his Keats-ness, and when was the last time that Paul Schneider didn’t
steal his scene? Fanny’s quest for substantive acceptance is particularly telling for Cornish, whose roles until this moment have consisted
of lovely adornment. I’m still not sure this signals a great talent, as the necessary characterization is so restrained that it is hard to
say. But she fits it like a long elegant violet glove.
The real stars are the astounding art direction, set design, and
composition. It’s a melody of mise-en-scene, with all things in the picture working to one harmonious end, under the stunning control of Campion.
What interests her most is the ritualization of passion, and the way that human beings tapdance about the edges of propriety to satisfy their
desire. In this she shares concerns with Stanley Kubrick’s great Barry Lyndon (I’ve called
The Piano “the female Barry Lyndon”). But whereas
Kubrick shapes his story in part into an anti-authoritarian polemic that reflects upon modernity, Campion invests deeply in the personal
feeling, and simply makes you feel what it was like to be that person living in that place at that time.
kevinbowen @ stageandcinema.com