Monday, November 16, 2009

Bright Star

The poetry of the English Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley—is the stuff that most of us put behind us when we leave college. We may remember it as being “good,” but the poems we recall tend to be the brief chestnuts rather than the meaty epics. I can still recite a few lines of Keats’s magnificent ode “To Autumn” and snatches of the Wordsworth piece that begins “Tis a beauteous evening, calm and free….” But looking back into The Eve of St. Agnes or The Prelude is likely to reinforce the impression that there are simply too many words, and quite a few of them ring false, too. It were as if, in an age before cinema explosions and steamy bedroom scenes, the best way to stir the reader’s blood was by referring to medieval legends, Greek gods, and leafy glades in cleverly rhymed iambic pentameter.

Historians tell us that to display such rapturous interest in the countryside was a new thing at that time, and it ushered in a more “natural,” personal, and deeply-felt mode of expression—hence the term Romantic poet. The stilted language of the eighteenth century gradually fell into disuse and the Greek gods eventually became less compelling too, though perhaps it’s worth noting that a half-century later, when Whitman was singing his barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the New World, Tennyson, Browning, Swindberg and other dandies were still all the rage in England.

With Bright Star, Jane Campion, the director of Angel at My Table and The Piano, has given us a look at the poet Keats, and the story is so slight we are likely to wonder why she set herself that particular challenge. The film has the trappings of a BBC Jane Austen flick but not the complicated plot lines. The Regency clothing, the china on the walls, the mahogany furniture, and the bucolic landscape are all in attendance, as well as the backdrop of financial insecurity, but the story is restricted to the confines of a single semi-rural duplex, where Fanny Brawn, a talented seamstress who knows nothing about poetry, falls in love with John Keats, an enigmatic poet of little money, bad health, and virtually no reputation beyond the circle of initiates that gather from time to time to discuss things literary.

The film is told largely from Fanny’s point of view, though it might have benefited from a bigger dose of hearty masculine literary small-talk. In one scene Keats agrees to give Fanny “poetry lessons,” and the few remarks he comes up with, “Poetry is like a lake, and when the poet jumps into it, his purpose is not to swim immediately to shore, but to luxuriate in the water…” leave us wanting a little more. But it might also be argued that Amy Cornish, who plays Fanny Brawn, is a lake herself, and her ever-changing expressions—curiosity, anticipation, frustration, affection, disgust—provide us with an inexhaustible font of interest, romantic and otherwise. Ben Whishaw, who plays Keats, is diffident and wary—largely, we suppose, because his lack of prospects make it impossible for him to marry Fanny, though it may simply be that his brooding entanglement with the muse or the illness of his brother Tom make it difficult for him to cultivate other relationships. His buddy and collaborator Brown, (who is also supporting him financially) is a simpler and far coarser, but also a more animated film presence.

Campion shot the film in a modern, anti-romantic style, with lots of jump cuts and seemingly random slice-of-life scenes. Fanny’s mother is a paragon of good sense and her two young siblings wander continually in the background, largely silent but attentive to Fanny’s growing infatuation. (In fact, every time her sister “Toots” appeared on screen I could hear someone a few rows away whisper to her companion, “She’s so cute.”)

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Or so Keats said. Bright Star is a thing of beauty, though its joy is muted by the gravity of the circumstances it depicts. It gives us less entertainment value, perhaps, than the average big-budget British romance, but it has soberness and integrity—like swimming in a lake where the water is a little too cold, and the bank suddenly seems very far away.

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