Ode to a pretty pic­ture

Jane Cam­pion’s pe­riod drama is a beau­ti­ful, sim­plis­tic story of doomed love, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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

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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

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