Bright Star

Written by:
Beverly Berning
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Bright Star (2009)

Written and Directed by Jane Campion
Starring: Abbie Cornish, Ben Wishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox
Run Time: 119 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Bright Star

Jane Campion is a sensualist. Her main interests are more of the senses than the intellect. Her films, though steeped in narrative, feel more like sensory experiences first, stories next. In a Campion film, exposition is never just for the sake of narrative comprehension; it is in the service of metaphor as well, and visual pleasure. This is why her films are so invigorating. Miss Campion is not considered a poet of the cinema for nothing.

And now the poetic director has chosen a poet as her starting point. Bright Star is a fictionalized account of the love affair between the Romantic poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, a young seamstress who lived in the adjoining house to his during the last year of his life. As an artist, Jane Campion was drawn to the poetry of another artist, but as a woman, her curiosity gravitated towards the character of Fanny Brawne. If Keats is the catalyst who inspired Miss Campion to make this film, and us to go see it, it is Fanny Brawne, the bright star of the film’s title, who makes it worthwhile.

In recreating the character of Fanny Brawne, Miss Campion has returned once again to those traits in a woman that she finds most worthy of her attention. Fanny is bold, frank and curious, and she is even a little awkward, but endearingly so, a bit like Alice though the looking glass. Miss Campion’s decision to dress her heroine in modernist renditions of period costumes makes Fanny look even more bold and adventurous. Ostensibly meant to express Fanny’s artistic creativity in fashion design, the dresses suggest a hint of eccentricity that ultimately make her look all the more out of place, someone a bit out of step, not necessarily before her time as outside of it-the kind of misfit Miss Campion adores. The casting of Abbie Cornish as Fanny adds another dimension to this oddball quality. There is something so refreshing about Miss Cornish’s screen presence. She is direct and unaffected; her acting is without artifice. No wonder young fans love her. Her performance as Fanny is amazingly fresh and natural. Her blunt display of devastation when she hears of John Keats’ death at the film’s end shows the kind of raw honesty rarely captured on film. Unlike the filmic heroines of a Jane Austen screen adaptation, who succumb to either of the two extremes of coquettishness or repressed feeling underneath a sensible nature (bimbo or librarian), Miss Cornish’s Fanny is downright uncategorizable.

Fanny’s personality may be bold and open in a 21st century way, but she is not a rebel; she stays within the constraints of early 19th century society. Still, the way she practically demands of Keats her first kiss feels gutsy and sexy, especially in the matter-of-fact way Miss Cornish asks for it. Although their lips barely touch, it feels like much more has happened. That one kiss is about all the film allows us, except for another scene where the two lie in bed next to each other, fully clothed and never touching, while Keats recites the poem Bright Star, which he wrote for Fanny.

Although it is fairly certain that Keats’ and Fanny Brawne’s love affair was not consummated, one can’t help but wonder why Jane Campion didn’t succumb to a bit more than mere suggestion of a sexual component in their relationship. It’s interesting that this film comes at the heels of In the Cut, which contained some explicit sex scenes, the kind that might even fluster European audiences. But within the restrictions imposed on her by her subject, Miss Campion manages to elicit another kind of eroticism through sublimation, and it pulsates in a way that makes even the most jaded of us feel young again.

First love is often the best love, not for any wild sex it might spark but for the intense emotions it conjures. And for women, sometimes such emotions are even better than the act of lovemaking itself. It’s difficult to capture these emotions on screen, but leave it to Miss Campion to give it a try, and to actually succeed to some extent. The scenes where the two young lovers-separated by fate-exchange letters, and Fanny retreats to her room in a kind of self-imposed obsessive state, reminded me of my own youthful inclinations. Fanny acts like she’s possessed, and she is.

“There is a holiness to the heart’s affections you know nothing about,” Keats bellows to his friend who has accused Fanny of being a flirt, a vapid little vixen who will only distract him from his poetic calling. We get the subtle impression from Miss Campion that that holiness of which John Keats speaks is housed in the pleasure one finds in physical sensation, be it from the sound of a nightingale or the sight of a lovely young woman, or the gaze of a handsome young poet. But that doesn’t take away from the rapture it evokes. Or the pain of its loss.

Beverly Berning

For an intriguing feminist critical capsule of Jane Campion’s films, see Fincina Hopgood’s article in Senses of Cinema:

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