Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Host Maureen Cavanaugh and film critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks talk about Bright Star.
The chaste, passionate romance of 19th century poet John Keats and his neighbor the practical Fanny Brawne is the subject of Jane Campion’s latest film, “Bright Star” (opened September 25 at Landmark’s La Jolla Village Theaters). You can listen to our discussion of the film of the September edition of Film Club of the Air.
I have always admired Jane Campion. From her feature debut “Sweetie” to “Angel at My Table” to “The Piano,” she’s been an iconoclastic director with a strong visual flair. So when I left her latest film, “Bright Star” I felt an appreciation for much of what she did but could never warm up to the film as a whole. It’s like showing a vegetarian a beautifully roasted chicken or leg of lamb and trying to convince them to try it. They can probably appreciate how it’s prepared but you’ll never convince them to dig in. If I want a tale of romantic obsession I much prefer the more energetic passions of say “Romeo and Juliet” or the magic of Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bete.”
To be fair, I have to confess that I just got done with a drawn out divorce and might not be in the most receptive mood for a tale of obsessive love but then romantic films have never been my cup of tea. In addition, Keats is not a poet that I enjoy. I can admire his craft but would much rather read Shakespeare any time. Plus watching two people deep in the throes of obsessive love you can’t help but feel like an outsider. They create a world of their own impenetrable by others. So while Campion does her best to convey that intense world, she never quite manages to pull me into it. In the end it feels something akin to the chaste affair at the heart of “Twilight,” in other words a lot of languid stares and heavy sighs.
I do like, however, the way she creates strong portraits of women with an eye to their social context. So here we get a sense of the world Fanny lives in, the social expectations for her to find a worthy husband, and her ability to make more money than her poet lover. Campion conveys Fanny’s world with a good eye for detail be it the painstakingly slow stitching of a ruffled collar or the etiquette of the dance floor or the dynamics of a family. Campion’s gift lies in her ability to convey information through her visuals and not having to tell us what it is that she wants us to observe.
Abbie Cornish is good as Fanny. She conveys a woman whose practicality comes up against an inexplicable passion. There’s a strength in her though that you do not find in Ben Whisaw’s Keats. Keats’ passion may be every bit as strong as hers but he remains a dreamer who does not have Fanny’s ability to survive in the real world. Whisaw’s performance can’t help but remind me of Garbo’s Camille, too physically weak and sick to survive despite the strength of her passion.
“Bright Star” (rated PG for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking) has moments of cinematic beauty and elegance, yet Campion’s skill as a filmmaker simply can’t make me embrace this tale of romantic obsession.
Companion viewing: “Camille,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Gothic,” “La Belle et La Bete”