Bright Star, a film by Jane Campion

Let me begin by saying that Ben Whishaw makes an excellent Keats. There is a nervous frailty to him, a boy-in-the-man intensity which is ideal for the part. Abbie Cornish, too, is wonderfully cast as Fanny Brawne  – although it needs to be said that I know nothing of this girl, Fanny – but Cornish is so beautiful, in a classical reflective manner, that the screen cannot have enough of her. For much of the film she has her hair pinned tightly back from her forehead with a perfect straight part which adds to the mask-like perfection of her features, the combination of her boldness and her uncertainty. Surely the camera loves her; it lingers on her face, on the pinched porcelain of her upper lip, it returns again and again to her as an object of desire, not simply for Keats, but for all of us.

In the meantime Whishaw, as Keats, scribbles poetry both in the company of his garrulous Scots friend Brown, and in various more romantic locations. There are occasional snippets recited for us. Christopher Ricks in the New York Review of Books complained that Campion had felt it necessary to addend the words with pictures, so that if Keats was describing, in a poem, snow, so we had to see it, or if a nightingale, we had to hear it, and as a result of his comments I was on the watch for this but found it to be unfair, the poems themselves were understated and deftly placed – the only situation where I found myself in agreement with Mr Ricks was for the final reading, a complete rendition of Ode to a Nightingale, recited by Whishaw while the credits rolled.

Here was an interesting phenomena: Keats has died, grief has set in, the film closes with an unnecessary snippet of information about Fanny wandering about the woods, and another, that Keats, when he died at 25 years old, considered himself a failure, and then cuts to the credits. Music begins, and Whishaw starts to read. He has come to embody Keats during the last couple of hours – whatever criticism the viewer might have of the film, this much is certain – and now he’s reading one of the poet’s more sublime works, and reading it well, beautifully even. But two powerful things arise to undermine him. The first is the music, which seems to bear little or no relation to the words; the piece is in three short movements and the breaks between them come arbitrarily, not even in sync with the verses, and these all too brief silences only emphasise the inappropriateness of the music, presenting as they do an opportunity to hear the man’s voice unobstructed.

The second, more disturbing, thing is that the audience gets up to leave. En masse. With perhaps a little less noise than usual, but with still a smattering of talk. To this observer it seemed passing strange. All these people had been prepared to sit through two hours of a profound love story about a misunderstood poet, but couldn’t give another five minutes to listen to one of his poems. It was as if they liked the idea of the suffering poet more than the poems – which seems also to suggest that the same fate would have attended him in the modern age as it did in the nineteenth century. But then perhaps it was simply that they needed desperately to pee (my only criticism of the film was that it was a little over-long, that the drama was drawn out too far, so it could be so)(the women did not agree). Or perhaps that’s what you do when credits roll, get up.

Note to Campion: if you want your audience to hear your subject’s poetry then (pace Ricks) keep the images rolling.

Incidentally Whishaw did an interview for the Movie Show with David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz where he talked about Keats’s concept of Negative Capability in a most entrancing way. That alone made me want to see the film.

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3 Comments on “Bright Star, a film by Jane Campion”

  1. rg smith Says:

    In regards to the exodus during the credits Steven, I had exactly the same experience, except that the audience during my screening were NOT quieter than normal, but seemed to double in volume and, by evidence of the snatches of conversation I couldn’t help but overhear above the onscreen mumble about something to do with a nightingale, they seemed to be delighting in trying to outblithe each other with their comments — ‘did you cry?’, ‘I did not!’, ‘I saw John cry!’, ‘where are we having dinner?’. In fact, I had the distinct impression that they were FLEEING the cinema, as though from the scene of some terrible deprivation — an irretrievable two hour desert of time where there own lives were not the object of attention — and in the ensuing redress, Keats’ nightingale reduced to but one blathering twitter amongst the many. It almost drove one to aspire to waste away from consumption in some cheap boarding house. (Which, if we attribute intention on Jane Campion’s part — i.e., deliberately swamping the sensitive viewer with negative capability — might prove to be a good thing.)
    And another, perhaps, possible good thing: I have heard (correct me if I’m wrong) that the French will sit quietly and attentively through the credits of all films until the bitter ‘fin’. Small consolation, I know, to entrust hope to a people who do not know the meaning of the word ‘entrepreneur’, but… emigration is always a possibility…

    Oh, and in closing, with regards to the wee time problem you mentioned – have you not yet realized that the ‘super-size’ coke containers hold EXACTLY one bladderfull and can be left discretely beneath the seats for the ethnic cleaners, who are accustomed to this type of thing, to dispose of? (Although aiming down the straw can be a bit tricky… suggestion: practice first in some French art house flick, where there’ll be nobody to notice) Added advantage: if you practice this early enough in the movie, you are assured of securing yourself BOTH armrests.
    Hope this might be of some assistance.

    • The interesting thing was that, after seeing Bright Star my good wife undertook a mini Jane Campion festival – The Piano, Portrait of a Lady, etc – and, it being a long time since I’d seen it I sat through Portrait, only to find that it is, in large part, about another consumptive and once again there is a beautiful young woman lying in bed with one of these poor souls holding his withered head in her hands and kissing his pale lips…

  2.’s done it again! Amazing article.

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