Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In Brief: BRIGHT STAR (2009)

It was a negative review that I didn't get around to reading until after Jane Campion's film had left the local art house that finally interested me in seeing her tale of the romance of John Keats and Fanny Brawne. The review appeared in The New York Review of Books, and was written by Christopher Ricks, a critic and Keats scholar. The full review is only available for subscribers, but the excerpt available for free will give you idea enough of Ricks's beef with Campion. To sum up, Campion's offense, in Ricks's view, was to wander into the old debate between the critics and the biographers. It's kind of a one-sided war. The biographers do their thing, which is to inquire into the influence of life on art, and certain critics attack them. These critics accuse the biographers of going overboard, as if they meant to prove that every word written by an author could be traced to an episode from his life. That approach, to the extent that anyone employs it, supposedly denigrates the author's power of creation and, more importantly, imagination. Ricks feels that Bright Star compounds the biographic fallacy by illustrating Keats' inspirations in so literal-minded a fashion that the movie might undermine the poetry's potential to evoke sympathetic imagery in another reader's mind.

Ricks's diatribe got me interested in seeing Bright Star because it left me wondering whether Campion intended anything like what Ricks accused her of doing. I can't say I'm a Campion fan; her only films that I'd seen before this were The Piano and Holy Smoke! That selection should tell you that I approached those films as a Harvey Keitel fan first. I did like both of them, though, and I don't mind the occasional 19th century period piece or biopic, so once a copy of the new film turned up on the New Arrivals shelf at the library, and especially after some bloggers have touted it as among the best films of last year and the decade, I grabbed it.

I was quickly satisfied that Campion had attempted neither literary criticism nor biography. Bright Star is not about Keats's career; it opens with him having already published, albeit without popular success. Nor does it attempt to explain the composition of specific poems in the manner of the old Hollywood biopics. The film is a romance set in the Romantic era, in a milieu pervaded with art. Keats writes his poems, brainstorms plays with his crony Charles Brown, and sings (or vocalizes) in an informal male chorus. Fanny Brawne is an artist (or craftsman) in her own right, a creator rather than follower of fashion, and someone who can be moved by poetry while struggling to understand how it works. For a while I thought the lovers would serve as symbols of craft and genius as separate aspects of art, but Campion isn't up to anything that pretentious. But there is a payoff to the interplay of art and emotion. Keats is moved to poetry by his romance as his earlier poetry had moved Brawne toward romance, but the romance shapes her craft as well. During one of the poet's absences, she gives up her sewing and tells her little sister that she doesn't care a damn for stitches. But at the end, her love for Keats inspires a work of art from her: a new mourning dress she wears for a walk through the wintry woods and a recitation of the title poem.

You don't need to know anything about John Keats beforehand or want to read his poems later to appreciate Bright Star. It's quite self-sufficient as a persuasive evocation of the Romantic age. The actors talk and move like people from another time; Campion's ear and eye for the soulful formality of old-time manners are impressive. Films like this remind us that manners can just as easily encompass emotions as suppress them, especially when enacted by actors of the caliber of Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw as our romantic leads. Paul Schneider as Charles Brown overdoes it a bid in a more comical role that overstates a rivalry between him and Brawne for Keats's attention if not affection, and the film did seem to run out of things to say or do before the inevitable end and a moving finale. But the overall experience is a positive one, enhanced by Greig Fraser's cinematography and an original score by Mark Bradshaw that reaches beyond the period for dramatic effect rather than aping the stereotype sounds of 1820.

Bright Star is also one of those films where you'll want to stay through the closing credits. That's because you'll hear Whishaw reading some nice lines from Keats as the credits roll. These lyrics aren't illustrated in any way that could offend Christopher Ricks or any other critic, nor does the film as a whole brainwash you into any interpretation of Keats's work. Ricks's concern over how the movie would influence future readers of Keats made him overlook the obvious. Bright Star isn't a work of criticism or interpretation; it's a work of art in its own right.


Sam Juliano said...

"Ricks feels that Bright Star compounds the biographic fallacy by illustrating Keats' inspirations in so literal-minded a fashion that the movie might undermine the poetry's potential to evoke sympathetic imagery in another reader's mind."

I am thrilled that you have rightly dismissed this argument Samuel, in an enthralling appreciation of a film that trascends such an irresponsible evaluation, by recognizing that film is its own art form. Your defense of the film broaches all the components that make this an intoxicating and beautiful period piece that uses texture to superlative effect. While Abbie Cornish and Paul Schneider (I'll admit I liked him more than you did) deliver extraordinary turns, I can't say enough for Greg Fraser's ravishing cinematography, nor for that sublime Mark Bradshaw score. In her own utilization of cinematic license, Ms. Campion has crafted one of her best films, doing full justice to a short interlude of romance near the end of the incomparable English poet's life (I actually did my graduate thesis on Keats! Ha!) with a film that builds to a piercingly profound emotional climax.

BRIGHT STAR was my #1 film of 2009.

John said...

I recently saw this myself and i am in agreement with you and Sam, Bright Star is an excellent, beautiful work of art in its own right. Superb performances and visually stunning.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam: I could tell as I was reading that review that Ricks was aiming at the wrong target and that no film about literature could have the malign effect he ascribed to Bright Star. The best evidence that Campion had no such intention in mind is the credit roll; no brainwashing illustration there.

John: Visually it's a nearly perfect period piece and anyone with a romantic or Romantic temperament would enjoy it.