Superior craftsmanship nearly polishes all the magic out of Jane Campionís mercurial cinema
JOHN KEATS WAS ONLY 25 years old when he died in Rome in 1821. In that brief life, he penned some 100-something poems, becoming a shooting star of English Romanticism alongside Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron and a scourge of slow-learning high-school English students who donít care to differentiate a Grecian urn from Grecian Formula. Three years before his death, Keats met Fanny Brawne, the 18-year-old eldest daughter of a widow who lived in Hampstead, outside London, where Keats was summering with his friend Charles Armitage Brown. At the time, Keats was a struggling poet, near broke, caring for his brother Tom—bedridden with tuberculosis, which took their mother and would eventually claim both Tom and John—and had not achieved any degree of fame or respectability. Nevertheless, he and Miss Brawne fell into a deep, if chaste, love affair, one stoked in florid correspondence and in their fleeting time together that lasted until he left for Italy and his death.
Auteur Jane Campion follows that intense relationship in her new Bright Star, and Miss Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and Keats (Ben Whishaw) are the sort of individuals to whom Campion gravitates. She has always been drawn to people seen as out of place in their times: the titular outsized sister in 1989ís Sweetie, New Zealand author Janet Frame in 1990ís An Angel at My Table, Henry Jamesí liberated heiress Isabel Archer in 1996ís The Portrait of a Lady, the spiritual-qua-sexual journeywoman who her family presumes needs deprogramming in 1999ís Holy Smoke, and, of course, the mute musician driving 1993ís The Piano. Campionís strengths reside in how she visually creates the worlds these people occupy, showing how theyíre threatened by their environments and how they survive, through the way they see and interpret and navigate the world—in their art, their loves, their lives. Theyíre not always simplistically happy or sad movies, but Campion doesnít deal with such one-dimensional realities. Her characters are as variegated and weather-beaten as any other terrestrial objects.
For Bright Star, Campion and her team achieve a remarkable early 19th-century verisimilitude. Cinematographer Greig Fraser seems to shoot everything with ambient light, appearing even to get by on candlelight alone for nighttime interiors. Janet Pattersonís costumes turn every Miss Brawne outfit into a walking flower arrangement, Miss Brawne frequently the only explosion of bright colors and whimsical designs in a palate dominated by dark woods and fusty woolens. (Even the movie's web site is a dose of tasteful visual preciousness.)
Cornish and Whishaw also convincingly step back into this era, turning what could be stilted proper English dialogue into conversations that dart and weave with naturalistic life. Cornish, especially, is a bit of a revelation here. While Whishaw gets by with letting his foppishly tousled hair and slight build dramatically conflict with his deeply emotive eyes, the young Australian actress displays a fascinating range: She is, at times, terse but inquisitive of the handsome young man living nearby; verbally sparring and combative with the opinionated Brown (Paul Schneider), who sees her merely as a flirting distraction; playful and sly when Keats and her mutual attraction slowly intensifies, a surreptitious touch of the hands at the dinner table conveying the erotic jolt of 10,000 volts; crestfallen and distant when weeks pass with no letter from Keats when heís off with Brown, who supports him. She brings a warmth and intensity to the story while never betraying its time period, maintaining the movieís captivating spell as a new yardstick by which to measure period-piece filmmaking.
Bright Star is a marvel of competent craftsmanship, which is its biggest problem. Campionís pacing, blocking, and even editing choices feels set under glass, as if everything was designed not to upset the dust on a perfectly formed composition. It makes for richly ornate individual scenes, but they donít discuss with each other that much, reining in Campionís idiosyncratic flow.
Worse of all, this approach all but strangles Campionís great gift for startling imagery. She has always created movie moments—a sapling planted in a concrete backyard porch in Sweetie, a woman tied to a piano beneath the sea in The Piano, the red-tinted shadows of In the Cut—that are silent-cinema iconic, conveying necessary moods and feelings in purely visual information. Here, only twice does she unleash that visual power. When Miss Brawne and Keats finally share their feelings for each other, Campion visualizes their emotional buoyancy in two shots: Miss Brawne laying back on her bed as sunlight pours into her room and a breeze levitates a gown-length sheer white curtain; Keats reclines atop a treeís canopy, its foliage dotted with budding flowers. No music or text or voice over or telling-you-how-feel signal is needed here, as the images alone carry that weight. And itís a pictorial sensuality that Campion doesnít commit to Bright Star ever again.