Saturday, September 19, 2009

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever..."

There's nothing really wrong with Bright Star, Jane Campion's new film about the ill-fated romance betwixt nineteenth century poet John Keats and a woman named Fanny Brawne. But I feel like I've seen it a million times. Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl. Boy can't afford to marry girl. Angst ensues. One of them dies. Lots of bonnets, corsets, and empire waisted frocks. This film is, of course, based on supposedly true events, and there's only so much you can do to liven things up without straining the bounds of artistic license, but most of the time it feels like "just another costume drama."

Thank goodness for Paul Schnieder, who plays Charles Armitage Brown, Keats's close friend and colleague. This is an element not often seen in films like this, and it's one that's perhaps borrowed from other formulas - the disapproving best friend. Brown has a deep love for Keats (portrayed in the film as surpassing normal friendship) and a great admiration for his talent. He thinks Fanny a flirt and an unnecessary distraction for Keats from his writing, not seeing Keats's perspective that she is the reason he has lately been inspired to write at all. His heartbreak at realizing how he has failed his friend is painful and wonderful to witness.

Ben Whishaw and Abby Cornish, as Keats and Fanny, both give tremendous performances and have a wonderful chemistry. And Campion is able to let them have a very passionate love affair, full of longing and desire, without crossing the threshold into a more literally sexual relationship.

While the movie as a whole feels a bit wanting, there are many other pieces that I loved. I'm very glad that the movie was able to include so much of Keats's poetry without letting it drag the pace. I also enjoyed how believably supportive Fanny's mother (eventually) was of her closeness with Keats, while still reminding her of the realities of her situation. Edie Martin defies the curse of roles for children and is quite an adorable little sister for Fanny. And perhaps my favorite scene in the film is the night before (if I recall correctly, that is) Keats leaves for Italy, in which he and Fanny lie next to each other, dreaming of finally being together in the marriage bed. Perfectly chaste, but brimming with sexual energy.

As I said, there's nothing wrong with Bright Star at all. In fact, it's pretty wonderful. But it strikes me as rather sad that after a few years this will very likely blur together with many other films of this ilk that I have seen in my lifetime, and that the only thing that will distinguish one from another is the historical figures involved.

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