Thursday, 3 December 2009

Bright Star

'A thing of beauty is a joy forever...' Divorced from the feminist waffle of The Piano and In the Cut, Bright Star may be Jane Campion's most engaging film to date. Don't expect to leave your brain at the door entirely though; truly this is a period drama for both the heart and the brain, resplendent in the familiar Campion style of truncated scene edits and subtext. Oh yes, there's a lot of subtext.

It's certainly her most ravishing film, almost overwhelming the viewer's senses in carefully observed sound and colour. It's the work of John Keats writ-cinema: an intoxicatingly sensual biopic (of sorts) of the hailed Romantic poet and his tragically short-lived romance with muse Fanny Brawne, one which inspired numerous haunting love letters.

As vibrantly played by Abbie Cornish, Brawne is a fascinating character, at odds with the stifled society of domesticity and needlework. A perfect match then for Ben Whishaw's dreamy Keats, whose staring off into space belies the brilliant mind within. The third party in the relationship is Paul Schneider's Charles Brown, Keats' overprotective friend who fears the influence of a woman on their treasured time for writing.

With Greig Fraser's gorgeous use of pathetic fallacy in the photography, moving from chilly winter to summer scenes of buttercups and birdsong, Campion sensibly recognises that composition is key to surmounting the difficult hurdle of bringing Romantic poetry to the big screen. There are some truly indelible images: Fanny's dress matching a meadow full of bluebells or her facing a billowing, free-flowing curtain post first-kiss with Keats. Mark Bradshaw's carefully deployed score also seems to reverberate on the heart strings.

The leads meanwhile are the perfect mix of fragility and sensitivity, with Cornish especially standing out at the heart of the frame thanks to Janet Patterson's subtle costume designs casting her as a woman at odds with her time. Whishaw meanwhile is ideal as Keats: inscrutable yet appealing, one whose climbing to the top of a tree and lying on it somehow speaks to our primordial senses.

Yet the finest peformance comes from Schneider who faces a difficult task in avoiding demonising Brown. His is a persona who can't yield to the senses as Keats does, but remains bound to the repressed workings of a mind, confined to a series of drawing rooms and books. In many ways, his feeling threatened at Fanny's presence is understandable. Kerry Fox and Thomas Sangster offer solid support as Fanny's mother and brother.

Well-cast and a treat for the senses it is then but does it truly amount to anything? In fairness, probably not but perhaps this is Campion's greatest achievement. After all, what does one take away from poetry itself? The film is the perfect mix of the visual and the inscrutable, as beautiful and puzzling as the song of the nightingale.

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