Friday, September 11, 2009
Against Irony: The Many Virtues of Jane Campion's Bright Star
In Jane Campion's Bright Star, the viewer experiences breath and air as markers of the passage of time in the lives of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, star-crossed lovers destined to leave more to history than to their own happiness. The film, shot entirely in natural and candle-light, is punctuated by two long stretches of period choral music sung a capella. Long close-ups on women's hands doing domestic work - sewing, cooking, and packing - return again and again. Several shots feature one of the lovers lying on their back dreamily or looking with apprehension towards an open window. Like a painting by Hammershøi or Hopper, these images suspend the viewer, drawing out the moment into a filmic statement about the fleeting nature of human existence.
That's Hammershøi's Interior With Young Woman from Behind and Hopper's Morning Sun, in order, above.
Like my other favorite films of recent memory - Silent Light and Jeanne Dielman (which I reviewed together here) - Bright Star dignifies the period women's work that a more glamorous film would sweep aside. Fanny Brawne, played in the film by the excellent Abbie Cornish, is constantly seen with needle and thread, creating the colorful outfits that bloom on her like another variety of the Hampstead flowers she and Keats spend afternoons collecting. Fanny is one of the better heroines of recent memory, a stubborn, exuberant, youthful and ultimately authentic lover. She is both more outspoken than we expect of a woman of her period and more believable. The kisses Fanny and Keats share are chaster than any I've seen onscreen, and more passionate for it. The film's subversion of the audience's expectations of a period film make it, like Sally Potter's Orlando, a more authentic experience.
It's a testament to Campion's script that Fanny's story comes to eclipse Keats himself; the film dignifies her longer life and less glamorous fate. Keats's Wikipedia entry refers to her as "rather promiscuous," which says a lot about the enduring legacy of misogyny embodied in the film by the poet Charles Armitage Brown, who believes that Fanny and Keats's relationship will ultimately destroy him. We all know how this story ends - Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821, at age 25 - and so the story leaves it to us to answer the question of whether passion killed the poet or inspired the work he left behind.
This film boasts many pleasures: the remarkable performance of Edie Martin as Toots Brawne, Fanny's younger sister; the transporting images of the Hampstead countryside; the intelligent and moving discussions of poetry; and the phenomenal lighting. I'll level with you. I was in tears the whole time. This is the best film of 2009, hands down. I love Bright Star especially because of its refusal to bow to the vast hunger for cynicism, a stylistic tendency in all modern art that has become lazy and predictable. With none of the tired shiny tricks like those on display in Tarantino's unfocused and bloated Inglourious Basterds,, this film captures the exhausting length of life with elegance and wit.