Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.
-Bright Star - John Keats
I bought a copy of Mansfield Park today (see last post). I did order one off of Paperback Swap, but this is the Norton Critical Edition. How can you resist that? I'm a total nerd, I know, but I swoon for historical record, annotation, and critical opinion all just laid out for me while I'm reading. I already found out the meaning of one sentence I would not have understood, having to do with selling of a parsonage to pay off debts and how the parish was passed or owned. I'm not British; I don't know these things.
So with one foot planted firmly in 1811, I decided to go to see Bright Star, the Jane Campion film about John Keats and his love/muse, Fanny Brawne. Loved it, thanks to an incredibly strong central performance by Abbie Cornish. All the supporting work was great, as well, especially Paul Schneider playing a complex cad, Charles Brown, ruinous to the lives around him, and Kerry Fox as Mrs. Brawne. The film concentrates on the period after Keats published Endymion (a thing of beauty is a joy forever 1818 or so) until his death in 1821. Oh, if you don't know the story - Mr. Keats - he dead. At 25.
I won't go into too much of the particulars, but they do fall in love, and have difficulty in Keats' having no income (money is a big thing in Austen, too, and for all those marriage people who talk about love and the sacred institution--here's a good one to see what the reality was 200 years ago). Life without money in London or anywhere in the environs was squalid and difficult to say the least, and the movie well contrasts the sumptuous country life with urban blight and filth.
This is a sensuous film. Campion's characters spend a lot of time outdoors, in fields, in the sun and rain. The cinematography is gorgeous--there is one shot in a field in lavender that I found breathtaking. Campion also spends time with cloth in this film. Fanny is a designer and seamstress, and there is no lack of luxurious fabric, white linen, and wind. I'm sure a thesis could be written on Fanny's emotional state through her clothes, but I don't have one off the top of my head.
Campion uses cloth to create tactile empathy. When Fanny lies down on her bed with Keats' first letter to her, there is a quick cut to her feet, peeking out for under her dress, lying on the side on her bed with her knees drawn up. Who wouldn't relate to that? Her clothes at the beginning are slightly garish and over colorful, becoming more muted and solemn as she is drawn nearer to Keats (as muted as one can be with a feathered hat). Cloth and her work with it is her gift, and it's clear from an early moment when she needs to give something to him to express her emotion, she immediately runs up to her room and embroiders. There are some gorgeous moments that I won't ruin here, but suffice it to say it's visually sumptuous without going over the top.
The cloth works for her in the way that nature does for Keats, and she is gradually drawn into his world and his vision. I'm sure 19th century Hampstead-ers were much closer to nature than we have experience of, and Campion beautifully pulls us into the sensuality of the terrain and of the environment. It's an almost tactile film. I would say the film is poetic, in that it works to draw us in through our senses and descriptions of the sensual world, attempting something that feels tactile to me--that's really the only way I can describe it. I'm not overly familiar with the Romantic poets, but it seems from the poetry included from Keats that's a bit of what they were attempting. She manages beautifully.
I was thinking of this because I've been thinking about Paris, which I saw last weekend. There was a moment when the main character, played by Romain Duris, is standing on his balcony in the snow as it falls lightly over Paris, and the camera pans to a hot cup of coffee in his hand. At that moment, I was pulled into the sensuality of the film, of Cedric Klapisch trying to give us the feel of Paris - a sensual experience of the city. (I'd give a quick review, but I have some issues with believability and I don't want to get off on a diatribe about how riveting Melanie Laurent la fille du moment is, and how ridiculous device-y, sexist, and just this side of offensive her character is--liked the movie fine, aside from it's feeling of contrivance and obviousness to have an excuse to create a paean to the city. Juliette Binoche, please work more, you're fascinating to watch. As are most of these people--the French cast interesting actors in their movies. Not great, but 3/4 of a good movie and not a bad place to be).
ANYhow, back to England circa 1820. Can I please give more props to Campion and her design team for having people wear clothes that look like people lived in them? We tend to see a lot of period movies where everything is lush and perfect. In keeping with the point of the piece, the clothes looked inhabited and felt. Aside from that, they were worn more than once. Although Fanny had more interesting dresses, she still wore several pieces over and over. I remember loving the Amanda Root/Ciaran Hinds Persuasion because the bottoms of the dresses were muddy. Same here. The world then was not paved.
Ben Whishaw was good as Keats. I wasn't blown over by him, and didn't fall in love with him myself, but I could believe the power of her feelings, which is the point. I was taken with Paul Schneider (though I loved him too in Lars and the Real Girl so I guess I shouldn't be surprised. He's allowed his moments of depth playing a feckless character, who is motivated on one hand by his own indulgence, and the other for his deep affection for Keats. It's actually one of my favorite performances of the year, and I hope he gets a nod or two from it. He deserves it.
One more salute to Campion. We are not in an age of sentiment. Navigating one of the most sentimental times in history for an audience not on a steady diet of it could easily turn treacly. Instead, she gives us a character whose gravity of feeling pulls us through some pitfalls that could be deadly for a contemporary audience, not the least of which is recitation of romantic poetry in dialogue. I've read some critics have had issue with the poetry used in the dialogue (I even heard the dialogue was "stylized", which I didn't notice--perhaps I need a better knowledge of Keats), but to me it was merely an extension of the main characters' deep regard for each other. It was a different time. People were deeply sentimental, swept up in the romance of nature, love and death, finding revelation and revolution in elevating emotion and lived, almost ecstatic, feeling into the highest purpose. Nature, Love, Death - I guess those really are the big three, but seeing them through the non-cynical eye of two centuries back, or at least the first great backlash against cynicism that could be encouraged by the age of enlightenment, is a treat. (And I'm no historian of the period--I'm sure it's much more complex than that). She pulls it off beautifully. I think it would be a temptation to have tried to make this sumptuous, to equate the rich voluptuousness of the language to the an abundance of sensation, rich color and and expensive fashion parade. By playing against this, Campion is able to tell her story and communicate the depth of emotion the story has to offer.
Abbie Cornish - I can't say enough. She carries the film, but she never loses track of the material. Her feeling is deep and grounded, and I was completely with her as she began to recite Keats' words back to him. She's not a simp, she's not a child, and we see her grow up through the action of the film. Her grief, when it comes, is painful to watch. I cried. And I am not one to cry at films. I think I've cried maybe 5 times in total at movies, and usually for some personal reason rather than the film itself, but I was wiping away tears. This one got me. Beautiful, sensual, clear of irony and cynicism without being cloying. I loved it.
And I loved Whip It, too, but that's another story.