Ode to a pretty picture
Jane Campion’s period drama is a beautiful, simplistic story of doomed love, writes Donald Clarke
FIVE YEARS after the chaotic disaster that was In the Cut, Jane Campion has returned with a simple tale about a doomed love affair between two reasonably ordinary young people. Eschewing big themes and psychological analysis for an embrace of mood and superficial beauty, Bright Star feels like an attempt to get back to basics. Here is a lovely garden. Here are some beautiful shots of dust caught in a late afternoon sunbeam. Here we see the lovers caught in a desperate last embrace.
Bright Star is a gorgeous exercise, but it’s not really about anything. Is it? Well, as the title suggests, the film is, in fact, an attempt to get to grips with the last
year in the life of John Keats. Ben Whishaw, a pale creature with a halting voice, plays the short-lived romantic poet. Abbie Cornish, back on form after a few disappointing American films, turns up as Fanny Brawne, the intelligent neighbour with whom he fell in love.
Drawing heavily on a distinguished biography by Andrew Motion, the picture never labours too hard at imposing a structure on the romance. Fanny makes friends with Keats, offers assistances to his dying brother and smarts as the poet’s roommate, literary hanger-on Charles Armitage Brown, sulks and snaps like a jealous schoolboy. Gradually their romance develops and begins to inveigle its way into Keats’s verse. Then he starts coughing into a handkerchief.
Campion seems to have two purposes here. One is aesthetic: to use her floating, unencumbered camera to provide a visual correlative for Keats’s soaring verse. In that she is partly successful. Bright Star is certainly very beautiful, but, what with its vague modern sensibility, it’s not beautiful in the same way as Keats’s more ordered poetry.
The second purpose is to reclaim Fanny – and, to some extent, all Keats’s women – from the critics and historians who, like Brown, regard any female attachment as a hindrance to creativity.
Cornish, so impressive a few year’s back in Somersault, conveys both frustrated intelligence and profound anguish as a woman who, deprived of other creative outlets, devotes much of her time to embroidery and clothes design. After mumbling her way through Stop Loss and A Good Year, the young Australian looks like a player once more. (Yet even her fine performance seems slightly underpowered when set beside the quite brilliant juvenile turn from Edie Martin as her young sister.) So the picture does go someway towards fulfilling its own objectives.
Why, then, does Bright Star feel just that little bit unsatisfactory? For a start, it never quite gets to grips with Keats’s creative process or the dynamics of his verse. Campion, who tackled literary imagination so effectively in An Angel at My Table, falls back on the hoary old technique of asking her actors to declaim the verse pompously while staring with blurred eyes at some invisible inspiration in the middle distance.
At one stage, one of the kids grasps a falling leaf and mutters something about autumn. We should be grateful that Whishaw doesn’t rub his chin and say “Hmm? Autumn? That gives me an idea.” However, some small examination of the mechanism that drove his art would be welcome.
Ultimately, what we are left with is a pretty, well acted film concerning (this is where we came in) two young folk, one of whom happens to be a literary icon. You can – as they do – intone every word of Ode to a Nightingale over the closing credits, but you will still be left with a film that has John Keats in it, but is not really about John Keats. Sales of The Eve of St Agnes are unlikely to soar.
Poetry in Poetry in motion: Abbie motion: Abbie Cornish and Cornish and Ben Whishaw in Ben Whishaw Bright Star in Bright Star