by Paul Thomas
From Film Quarterly Spring 2010, Vol. 63, No. 3
Try this for sheer unexpectedness. After their Christmas dinner at Wentworth Place in Hampstead Village—it is 1818—the fatherless Brawne family and their guest, Mr Keats, settle down to enjoy a parlor game. Each person around the table, in unison, stirs his or her coffee cup three times to the left, three times to the right, then taps the rim of the cup three times with the spoon, raises the cup from the saucer, blows three times on the coffee, then puts the cup down. Jane Campion’s Bright Star abruptly lets (or drops) us in on this utterly unexpected family ritual. It is a moment for which her audience has no way of preparing itself, a moment not dwelt on, just glimpsed. But it is not as inconsequential a moment as it may seem. The second time I saw Bright Star I looked around me at the faces of my fellow patrons at this moment in the film, and noticed that their expressions shifted from incredulity and discomfiture to pleasure—the simple kind of pleasure that spreads itself—and that they all shifted at exactly the same time. I could tell from the smiles on their faces (and from the smile on my own) that Campion’s audiences enjoy this fleeting moment in just the same way as her characters do on the other side of the camera.
This is the kind of move, a move more deft and confident than disconcerting, that filmmakers attempt very rarely. It establishes a moment of contact between cast and spectator that is possible only when the cast is working as a collective, as from all accounts Campion’s cast did on Bright Star. Jean Renoir does something similar at least twice in what was his most “collective” film, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. When the schoolchildren converge on the Parisian newsstand for the latest episode of the Arizona Jim serial, their elation becomes that of the audience too; and when, in the party scene, the concierge Besnard (Marcel Levesque), who is in his cups, sets about regaling his courtyard neighbors with his sentimental song, “C’est la nuit de Noël” for the second time, the groans that emanate from Renoir’s cast and those of every Lange audience I’ve ever sat among are one and the same. At moments like this—they are few and far between—barriers are briefly overcome, barriers that to most directors simply come with the territory and are conditions of existence.
But even if Jane Campion is not the director to rest content with such barriers, there is no equivalent in Bright Star of Renoir’s mise-en-scène. Bright Star’s mise-en-scène is undemonstrative to the point of abruptness. It is also a film that confounds audience expectations by deliberately not setting out to enhance anyone’s appreciation of Keats’s poetry. And if Campion is prepared to forego mise-en-scène and dispense with Keats appreciation, these do not exhaust the risks run by Bright Star. Its chronology is muddy, for one thing; characters like John Reynolds and Charles Dilkes appear and disappear for no apparent reason; and Fanny Brawne’s brother Samuel is given nothing to do except get taller, while her nine-year-old Pre-Raphaelite sister Margaret (Edie Martin)—everyone calls her “Toots”—almost steals every scene she’s in. (Keats asks her whether she’s been “eating rosebuds again,” her cheeks are so ruddy.) More generally, Bright Star tacks in dangerously close to reefs and shoals marked clearly on the charts as danger zones if not disaster areas: the period costume drama, the romantic hero, the anguished, misunderstood genius, young love frustrated by uncomprehending elders as well as by untimely death—need I go on?
Yet for all this Campion tacks cannily, pulling back from the danger zones she skirts. It comes as no surprise that Abbie Cornish’s Fanny Brawne takes a craftsman’s pride in her “triple-pleated mushroom collar,” or that she never wears the same outfit twice. (She was not Beau Brummel’s niece for nothing.) It was even predictable, perhaps, that Brawne, Keats’s “minxstress” who is the real center of Bright Star, would become one of Campion’s strong, complicated women. Brawne’s sewing, Campion is on record as saying (with all due feistiness), is “a metaphor for women’s lives: nobody gives a damn.” The hostility to Brawne’s craft to which Campion refers emerges in Bright Star not from Keats, though he is much less interested in her craft than she is in his. The hostility erupts instead from the third person in the triangle, Charles Armitage Brown (played to the hilt by Paul Schneider in a broad Scots burr and preposterous tartan trews), who is both protective of Keats and proprietary about his poetry. Brown, not Keats, is the aesthete in Bright Star, valuing vocation over matrimony and high art over life, life as the enemy of promise. Bright Star encourages our belief that Brown’s solicitude for Keats and hostility to Brawne is not motivated solely by her potential to derail Keats’s career. Brown at all events is oafish, glowering, smoldering, and overbearing. Every one of his absences from the screen, however brief, comes as a relief. Even so, it is not Ben Whishaw’s Keats, who quivers and bristles but stays shy and limpid, but instead Brown in one way, and Toots in another, who see to it that Cornish, an extraordinarily good film actress, doesn’t steal the show entirely.
But Campion awards Brown’s tussle with Brawne pride of place. Early on in the film, incensed by one of his slurs about her fashionista tendencies, Brawne flatly and disconcertingly refuses to shake hands with Brown at Wentworth Place, and the friction established here is never resolved. To the extent that Keats plays no part in the tart-tongued banter between these protagonists, he is displaced—and the idea of Keats as a character in a film rather than its centerpiece has proven too much for some of his champions among the literary professoriat, notably Christopher Ricks in the New York Review of Books (see “Undermining Keats,” December 17, 2009). I cannot agree with Colin MacCabe in the pages of this journal (fall 2009) when he claims that Keats’s poetry “gets in the way of” Bright Star. Campion uses the poetry sparingly to punctuate, and more rarely (and perhaps unfortunately), to illustrate the film, not the film the poetry. The poetry she works into Bright Star, that is to say, is never central to it, and this is enough to ruffle the feathers of Ricks, for whom “the question is whether Campion’s imagination mines Keats’s art or undermines it.” This stark way of posing “the” question leaves Bright Star high and dry, and leaves Ricks seething with indignation at a Keats dislodged from the position of centrality he ought to occupy in any film where he appears. Ricks tells us of a panel discussion of Bright Star held under the auspices of the Keats-Shelley Association of America. One can only shudder to imagine what this discussion was like, if “Undermining Keats” is anything to go on. Ricks regards Bright Star as “the condescending granting of pictorial assistance to words that were designed to stand in no need of support from a sister art.” One might suspect, however, that the condescension is all Ricks’s, when he loftily disdains Bright Star‘s “fatuous supplementation” of Keats, and declares the film guilty of “an infidelity to his manners, his voice, his humors, and his art.” Not only is this, in my opinion, precious beyond belief; Ricks, for all the force of his speculations about “visualization,” appears not to notice what is going on in Campion’s film. Charles Armitage Brown is not so much as mentioned in “Undermining Keats.” Perhaps Brown is a little too close to the bone for Ricks?
The truth of the matter, I suspect, is that no film can successfully take us inside the process by which poetry or art is produced, and that for her part Campion, sensibly, does not even try to do this. Her presumption is that Keats’s poetry is good enough to look after itself and should be left free to do so. Moreover, Campion has an answer in Bright Star to those who, like Ricks, think her film dishonors or derogates Keats by not revolving in a stately manner around his poetry. Her answer is Charles Armitage Brown. Bright Star discredits the pompous, belletristic concerns of the aesthete by exposing their dark side, the pontification and bullying of Brown. What is at stake in the confrontation of Brawne and Brown is the distinction between delicacy, grace, workmanship, family, and community on the one hand, and bombast and didacticism on the other. (It is Brawne, we should remember, who has intellectual curiosity and openness on her side, not Brown.) There can be no question where Campion comes down on this issue. Her Keats, too, is at his happiest and most relaxed among the Brawnes; he breaks a prior commitment in order to spend Christmas with them. (When at the end of the film an otherwise distrait Mrs Brawne, played by Kerry Fox, at last won over, says to Keats as he leaves for Italy, “You must come back and marry our Fanny,” this is both the kindest and the cruelest line in the film).
Critics like Ricks who center their attention on Keats tend to treat his “life and times” in a proprietary manner, as though these really were Keats’s and Keats’s alone. Jane Campion makes no such assumption, which is perhaps why Bright Star begins as abruptly as it does, by plonking its spectators in medias res. We see a back garden with ducks and mud underfoot, with bed linen flapping in the wind—the same linen through which Keats is to pace back and forth in the rain once Brown’s valentine to Brawne has had its desired effect and provoked his jealousy, and the same linen we later see mottled with his arterial blood. There is little that is picturesque about the Regency England seen here. Bright Star does not encourage us cheaply to latch on to its characters by portraying a, or the, “world we have lost.” It is no showpiece. But it is attentive to the sights, sounds, and rhythms life must have had in 1818. It shuns the period clichés directors of many period dramas use as grappling irons. We are never far from the textures of its everydayness. The sound is naturalistic and close-miked. There is little music, and what there is (Mozart’s Serenade, K361) is played none too expertly. It is music as music would have been heard at that time, in that place, by those characters—as is the oddly endearing vocal music of the Hampstead Heathens. Natural light is used as much as possible. Characters read by the daylight that comes in through windows. This gives some compositions a sub-Vermeer quality—but very sub-Vermeer, since Campion’s (or her director of photography Greig Fraser’s) are not too carefully composed or centered. We see what we would see if we happened upon it by chance, by turning a corner inside a very lived-in Wentworth Place. The texture of the Brawnes’ close-knit Hampstead village has to contrast with the chilling, impersonal austerity of Keats’s lonely funeral in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, and contrast it does. But visual effects, like sound effects, and poetic effects too, are not strained after in Bright Star. It is not a film that stands on ceremony.
Lovers and poets may create their own realms of feeling and significance, but are constrained to do so in the same world inhabited by everyone around them, the world as a reality that has to be negotiated, not shunned or spurned or rejected in the name of “genius” or the solemn male game of poetry. Negotiating the lived-in world depicted by Campion involves an embroidery-like attention to detail (Bright Star‘s titles show an extreme close-up of a needle, thread, and cloth), an accumulation of small gestures and finite pleasures (the parlor game again—no wonder it reminded me of moments in Renoir). On se débrouille, as the French say: you manage, you cope, you get by, you make do, and that way your life “adds up” and signifies. This lived-in world is where Campion as craftsman and Brawne as seamstress overlap in a penumbra that briefly encloses Keats too—not the Keats of literary legend, the transcendent, sublime figure, but the finite historical one who interests Campion, the Keats who got under the guard of a “mere” seamstress, as she got under his.
Paul Thomas is a longtime Film Quarterly contributor and “Intertitles” columnist.