Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bright Star

By any definition, life dealt John Keats a pretty bad hand: his father died when he was eight, his mother when he was fourteen; a legacy that could have made his life easier and given him more time to write was not brought to his attention (either by oversight or design); torn between his exorbitantly expensive medical studies and the pull of literature, he suffered crippling depression; despite being championed by Leigh Hunt, his first collection – published at the tender age of 21 – was berated by the critics and barely sold; his beloved brother died of tuberculosis, a disease which later claimed Keats himself; his mature work ‘Endymion’ reached no wider readership; he borrowed heavily from his friends to keep himself in a reasonable standard of living; his adjournment to Rome for recuperation in better weather following two lung haemorrhages was made possible only by the generosity of supporters; and it was there he died, aged just 25, considering himself a failure.

All told, the basic chronology for anyone considering ‘Keats: The Movie’ as a film project makes for a depressing narrative. In fact, the only high points are his romantic relationships with Isabella Jones and – more notably – Fanny Brawne.

Keats and Brawne’s love story spanned the last three years of the poet’s life. Eighteen when they met, Brawne was atypical of the “proper” young lady of the times: she was feisty, enquiring, opinionated and intensely passionate. Keats was a wholehearted exponent of the Romantic school. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, their grand passion could have pre-ordained. Their years together (and apart, depending on circumstances) resulted in some of his finest work: ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and the much-revised sonnet ‘Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art’, which gives its name to Jane Campion’s elegant, thoughtful and sensitive biopic.

Drawing on Andrew Motion’s acclaimed biography – Campion engaged him as script advisor – ‘Bright Star’ nonetheless proceeds from Fanny (Abbie Cornish)’s point of view. Her attraction to Keats (Ben Wishaw) is immediate but as in every love story with any enduring resonance, there are obstacles. Keats’s mentor and occasional co-author Charles Brown (Paul Schnieder) sees Fanny as something of a flibbertigibbet and a distraction from the real business of Keats’s writing.

Brown comes across as louche and arrogant to begin with, but the depths of his (entirely aesthetic) affection for the poet is revealed by degrees, culminating in a tirade of self-loathing after his friend’s death as he admits “I failed John Keats.” Another naysayer is Fanny’s mother (Kerry Fox) who quickly intuits the strength of her daughter’s feelings and tries to reason with her as diplomatically as possible. “Mr Keats knows he cannot like you,” she avers: “he has no living and no income.” It’s a quiet but devastating line.

Fanny, headstrong and in the most impressionable flush of youthful emotion, is undeterred. Keats responds almost indifferently at first, despondent over his brother’s debilitating illness, his financial situation and the general lack of interest in his book ‘Endymion’. But Fanny’s empathy and the comfort she offers him after his brother’s death draw them closer together. Keats spends Christmas with her family. The following year, however, Brown insists on a “summer rental” – i.e. their joint accommodation let out while they relocate to cheaper lodgings – and the separation is devastating to Fanny. There are moments of relief – transcendence, even – when she receives a letter from Keats (the film’s most celebrated image has Fanny sink to her knees in a field of bluebells as she reads his words, every element of the world around her suddenly and abundantly regenerated), but the toll of being apart is a destructive burden.

All this could too easily have become a study in anguished yearning, he a fey and consumptive presence, she a hypersensitive adolescent. Or for the script to have swung too far in the opposite direction and the whole enterprise emerge as a handsomely shot but stultifyingly polite costume piece, a kind of super-produced BBC drama. But Campion is too intelligent a writer and too disciplined a director. The production design doesn’t mire itself in the Regency prettification that is the bane of many costume dramas. The cinematography offers no sheen. Clothes look rumpled and lived-in, a sense of make-do-and-mend lurking beneath the ruffles and petticoats. Houses maintain a fa├žade of social standing but rooms are sparsely furnished, paint is faded, possessions are few. This is a world away from your Bennetts and Darcys, a world where even families who maintain a staff seem to be keeping up appearances on rapidly thinning incomes. 

Campion is well-served, too, by her cast. Wishaw – one of the few actors of his generation who genuinely exhibits the hallmarks of a great performer – is savvy enough not to try to “be” Keats but to suggest the life and the haunted sense of failure and the part-wearying part-exultant emotionalism that defined the man who created the great poems. Cornish, who gave an emotionally honest performance in ‘Somersault’ and should have been better served by Hollywood than has been the case, is nothing short of revelatory here. Fanny’s vacillations between precocious self-confidence and painful vulnerability are the stuff of showboating and breast-beating; a lesser talent would have made Fanny Brawne shrewish and hysterical. Cornish nimbly dodges all the potential pitfalls and establishes every emotional beat of Fanny’s three years with Keats, a performance that culminates in two particularly difficult scenes – the outpouring of grief at the news of his death; the solemn acceptance as she recites the titular sonnet.

‘Bright Star’ is a virtually flawless film* that is understated in all the right places while injecting a heady rush of words and emotion into its audience’s sensibilities at exactly the right moments. Conventional wisdom has it that ‘The Piano’ is Campion’s masterpiece. For me, ‘Bright Star’ is her most sublime achievement as a filmmaker.

*Schiedner is slightly – slightly – heavy-handed in a few of his scenes. The script assumes an existing knowledge of some aspects of Keats’s life. These aren’t even complaints.

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