leave your impatience at the door and slip into a peaceful mood
On the way to see “Bright Star,” leave your impatience at the door and slip into
a peaceful mood. You will have lots of time for thinking while this movie
unfolds very, very slowly. As we might expect from writer/director Jane Campion,
the film is a beautiful sight, caught in the kind of light and color that seems
to have disappeared under the assault of fractured modern rhythms.
The film unfolds in a small country house in Hampstead in pre-Victorian 1818. There lives Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox) with her daughter Fanny, another younger daughter and a teenage son. Money is a major problem, alleviated just a little when the young poet John Keats and his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) become paying borders in one half of the partitioned first floor.
Fanny (Abbie Cornish) is a bright and quick witted young woman who abides by the conventions of the day but whose mind is ready to take flight when she meets John Keats (Ben Whishaw). Bound to home by custom, Fanny spends her time sewing her own clothes with innovative stitching that would have served her well two centuries later. Abbie Cornish endows Fanny with the inner pluck that so appealed to Keats, and Ben Whishaw is appropriately gaunt and morose as his illness and death approach.
Campion serves us well by not making a theatrical story even more so. We are spared overblown melodrama. The tragedy of the youngest of the famed Romantic poets dying at twenty-five stands alone, and Campion is wise to have him die far away in Italy rather than in a deathbed scene in Hampstead. The director makes another wise move in her handling of his poetry. Enthralled by Keats, Fanny learns his poems, and, as she begins to recite them, quite wonderfully back to him, he responds until both are using the poems as a quiet declaration of their love.
It is a given in a Campion film (think of “The Piano”) that she will dig deep in order to convey time and place on film. A ritual afternoon tea offers a form of cup drumming that must have been part of pre-Victorian fun. Keats’ friend Charles cavorting as a self-proclaimed monkey in an embarrassing scene would be irritating in any era.
For all the drama of the Keats story, it is odd to feel that this movie moves nearly intolerably slowly and feels tepid. And so there is that time to think. You can think about beauty of light and landscape, of deaths of two young brothers before medicine caught up, of what people did back then to distract themselves, of how women were confined until they married, of how families spent their candlelit evenings. And when you shake yourself back to the film, there will still be Fanny and John Keats struggling with money problems and ill-fated love without any knowledge that by twenty-five he had already written his legacy.
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