Monday, October 19, 2009
Bright Star, Jane Campion’s portrait of Fanny Brawne & her relationship with the boy next door, John Keats, is a weepy, and if it weren’t marketed as a biography of Keats, I suspect that the gender balance in the cinema would tilt heavily female. As it was, when we caught the movie at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, the average age of the audience must have been on the high side of sixty, though the theater itself was packed. Senior date night.
For what it is – a weepy, not a biography of Keats – the film is quite decent. Campion is an efficient director & the acting, with one notable exception, is excellent, especially Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne. She gets first billing on the posters and thoroughly deserves it. In a way, she is exactly whom you would turn to if you were looking for Kate Winslet, but ten years younger. Cornish here lacks the raw wildness that is at the heart of Winslet’s best roles, but then so did Winslet once upon a time. Ben Whishaw, having recently played Bob Dylan as Arthur Rimbaud in I’m Not There (where he was the weakest of the Dylan surrogates), is fine as the young man dependent on everyone else for everything – money, food, shelter, love. If I have problems with Whishaw’s Keats – and I have huge problems – it’s not with Whishaw’s portrayal but with Campion’s presentation of the finest of the second generation Romantics as a weak, mostly passive nincompoop. Mouthing Keats’ lines does not make you Keats if every other action you take in the picture suggests utterly no ability to see into the world with the intensity necessary to craft such poems. Staring dreamily out the window is not insight. The one moment where Whishaw’s Keats comes close to seeming a poet is when he compares poetry into diving into a lake, but Whishaw’s presentation seems abstract – he’s saying the lines, but he doesn’t appear to get them. You have to go back to Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love to find a major poet presented in such underwhelming fashion.
Campion doesn’t make Whishaw’s job any easier. Of all the characters, his Keats is the one most apt to use terms – pantaloons – that don’t come easily to a modern tongue. For the most part, Whishaw makes them sound like part of the discussion, not an excerpt from Shakespeare. This is an improvement over, say, Paul Schneider’s Charles Armitage Brown, Keats’ friend & patron, who appears to have wandered in from a sitcom. Where every other portrayal in the film is muted, Schneider overstates everything. His postmortem confession to Fanny that “I failed John Keats” is pronounced with all the subtlety & heartfelt emotion of a Billy Mays infomercial.
But the person whom this film depends on, around whom everything centers, is Cornish & she handles all Campion throws at her, up to & including a final scene where, in mourning, she traipses off into the snow reciting a poem aloud. It’s such a cliché that it’s hard not to guffaw, right at the film’s end. It’s a sign of how well Cornish performs that we don’t ask what she sees in this callow slacker.
Whishaw recites one of the six poems that turn up in this 119-minute feature over the closing credits, but it was literally impossible to tell which one over the rising & shuffling bodies of departing movie-goers. I’m a devoted credits reader & could go on at length about the imbeciles who bolt the instant they start to roll. You could see how involved in the poetry they were.
Focusing on the female character may be a convention of the weepy, but it also gives Campion more room to work, since Brawne is less well known, still without her own Wikipedia page. She’s older here than she was in real life just because Cornish is, but that also makes her emotions come across as all the more tragic because all the more adult. One could of course argue that 17-year-olds were indeed adult in the early 19th century in England (my great grandmother had the first of her 13 children at 15, and that was nearly 50 years after the 1818-21 time period figured here). But Campion goes further, neglecting to mention that Brawne did indeed marry at the age of 33 & bore three children. Campion also makes Brawne the one who appears more completely committed to the relationship, where Keats’ letters to her suggest otherwise – as does La Belle Dame Sans Merci – that to some degree she toyed with his affections. If you think about it, the tragic ending would have been even deeper had they played it by the book.
So this finally is not a film about two historical characters so much as it is about two possible characters. The world they inhabit may be interesting even if it’s not the one we inhabit. That film has yet to be made.