Kevin Saving on

Bright Star (PG)
(Pathe, 2009)
 

Exquisitely Tailored Butterflies

Girl meets boy...boy dies.

It's fairly probable that most of the sixty-or-so audience who clambered with me into the (adapted) lecture hall for this film-revival would have been familiar with its basic 'plot'. I write 'revival' because Bright Star seems, unsurprisingly, to have been a commercial flop. It certainly 'bombed out' of my local multi-plex after just two days -and before I'd had the opportunity to view it.
 
Bright Star, written and directed by Jane Campion, concerns itself with the courtship ('affaire' would be far too steamy a word) between the poet, John Keats, and the Hampstead seamstress, Frances ('Fanny') Brawne - played here by Abbie Cornish. Certainly, Miss Cornish looks the part: the one surviving 'ambrotype' of Brawne, taken when she was fifty, makes for a a startling resemblance - if the obvious time-lapse is taken into account. Bright Star is, self-evidently, a labour of love. For attention to detail and vivid imagery it bears comparison with The Piano (1993) for which Campion won her previous Oscar (for 'Best Director'). Beautifully shot, it coincidently affords its cast the opportunity to rig themselves out in some of the late-Georgian wardrobe which must, surely, have been moth-balled after the glut of recent Jane Austen adaptations.
 
At just under two hours in length, Bright Star somehow feels rather longer. At its centre, Ben Whisaw's 'Keats' seems far too foaty-floaty, poety-poety. We know, from the accounts of his contemporaries, that little Johnny Keats, the man, could be (contrary to later reputation) quite a pugnacious individual. Yet, for all that, he also proclaimed his desire to live 'a life of sensation', and Campion's direction keeps this faith. Her focus is on a series of tableaux: from the sensuous opening shots of a needle piercing cloth, through vistas of billowing, Hampstead washing-lines, via a scene wallowing in luxuriant bluebells, to the artfully-contrived bedroom full of exquisitely tailored butterflies, this movie basks in its own gorgeousness. Well over half-way towards its predestined conclusion, Keats' house-mate, Charles Armitage Brown (the cheerfully simian Paul Schneider) exclaims exasperatedly of his rival-in-the-poet's-affection, Fanny: 'Why don't you just bed her?' and, probably, by this point, most of the audience would cheerfully assent to this proposition. This is a film in search of a more rigorous edit.
 
One or two directorial/screenwriting liberties have been perpetrated. For instance, Brawne's own love letters (given the 'voiceover' treatment here) were not preserved - some, apparently, being buried, unopened, in Keats' Roman grave. Also, we are not told that miss Brawne did, indeed, eventually marry - some twelve years after her first fiancee's death, bearing her husband two children and dying (by then in her mid-sixties) in London, after many years spent abroad. She did, though, keep - and wear - the poet's ring: women can be funny like that.

Kevin Saving © 2010