Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Bright Star

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Movie Review: Bright Star

by Tony Dayoub

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

—John Keats

Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water

—the epitaph Keats requested on his deathbed

A return to form for Jane Campion (The Piano), the ethereal Bright Star proves simpler films with a narrower scope can be just as rewarding as the more ambitious ones.

Campion fashions this romance in much the same way John Keats crafted the titular poem. She negates the superficial qualities one traditionally associates with a love affair to focus on the deeper aspect of commitment and loyalty that characterizes Fanny Brawne's (Abbie Cornish) ardor for Keats (Ben Whishaw). For instance, Fanny decides to enlist her younger brother and sister in helping to populate her bedroom with butterflies (in all of life's stages including caterpillar and chrysalis), to keep the room continuously bejeweled with the colorful creatures after Keats writes in his first letter to her:
...Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammeled me, so destroyed my freedom…I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain...
Campion then denies the magnificence of this sequence with the subsequent scene: Fanny in a deep depression days later over the declining frequency of Keats' letters to her, her mother sweeping up dead butterflies onto a dustpan. Rumors build around Fanny's refusal to see other suitors, pining for the impoverished poet instead.

As if social customs, debt and gossip aren't enough, another complicating factor impeding Keats and Brawne's relationship is his friendship with Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Brown is overprotective of Keats through his brother's death and the poet's own bout with tuberculosis, aggravated by Keats attraction to Fanny who he considers mentally ill-suited for such a genius. Fanny's ability to remain the stabilizing factor in Keats' short life despite these complications—and her own heartbreak as the fleeting romance begins its downward spiral—elevates her like the simple "still stedfast, still unchangeable" star of the poem.

Like any true romance, there must be a component of tragedy, and Bright Star's ending mirrors the finality of the poem Campion modeled her film after. Keats and Fanny separate, as he travels to the warmer city of Rome in hopes of defeating his illness, striving to remain
for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.


Kevin J. Olson said...

As someone who received their BA in Literature I feel like I have to see this movie as soon as possible, hehe. I love what Philips and Scott said on At the Movies "it's like a wet dream for English majors everywhere."

Great review, Tony. I look forward to catching this one when it hits Salem.

MrJeffery said...

I agree, the narrow scope suited the film and Campion's gifts well.