Bright Star Revisited
A Movie Lovely As A Tree

When Jeff Walls reviewed Bright Star for its theatrical release here at Past the Popcorn, he was less than overwhelmed.  “Despite the excellent production values and the terrific performances of its leads,” he wrote, “Bright Star failed to draw me in and I left the theater feeling depressed and a little bored.”  For other critics, such as me, it anchors the lower rungs of their year-end top-ten lists.  What will you likely think of this look at the poet John Keats and his ill-fated romance with young woman-of-privilege Fanny Brawne?

I suspect that will have a lot to do with what you expect out of a film, and how much appreciation (and patience) you have for the art of poetry.  It definitely clicked with me for two reasons, and both of those are the direct result of directorial choices.

First, Bright Star is Jane Campion’s in-depth “supposal” that we can inhabit, for two hours or more, the meaning of a single Keats poem—and do so in a biographical portrait. 

Abbie Cornish as Fanny in Bright StarThese are the lines of the titular poem:

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.

When Fanny attempts to “study” poetry at Keats’ feet, she tries to understand it by dissection—as if it were a matter of construction and a collection of choices, and a matter of digesting one great work of poetry after another in order to extract what’s nourishing and move on to the next.  But Keats tells her: “Poetry is like a lake, and when the poet jumps into it, his purpose is not to swim immediately to shore, but to luxuriate in the water.”  And this is what Campion’s film—and Campion herself, as a cinematic poet—does with the poem “Bright Star.”

Specifically, Campion takes time to explore the natural images that Keats’ poem evokes, deliberately denoting the passing of seasons (and years) while making no attempt to convey the impression that her characters have aged at all—instead, capturing the eternity-seeking urges of the second half of the poem in the agelessness of both adults and children.  And while some of the most pointed moments of the script occur out-of-doors—such as a scene in which the ill and jealous Keats accuses Fanny and his writing-partner Brown of being lovers—the heart of the film resides in loving shots of interiors: the wall that separates Fanny and Keats, and their tender touches through it; the billowing curtains and sweltering butterfly-heat of Fanny’s room; the claustrophobic comedy that frustrates Keats’ and Brown’s muse; and, of course, the tenderness that holds the lovers in thrall as they lie “in a sweet unrest” in one another’s arms.

Campion’s approach here is not one that views film as a mere momentary escape, a matter of piecing together one “what’s next?” sequence with, well, the next, all in an effort to arrive at some narrative payoff or action setpiece.  This is a film that poetically explores poesy, a poet, and poem—and is for that reason both extraordinary and potentially disappointing.

Second, Campion offsets some of that potential disappointment by granting the non-poetic audience some entrée into Keats’ metaphorical lake through the neophyte character of Fanny—and, in particular, the delicate needlework which is her specialty.  The film is even gorgeously opened by close-ups of Fanny’s fingers as she wreaks her magic with fabric and thread; and the intricacy, patience, and originality of her work serves as an effective outsider’s metaphor for what Keats does with words.  Yet there is no sense that Fanny’s talents are in any way inferior.  In fact, when Keats’ brother dies and Fanny produces a masterwork of needlepoint as a memento, it’s breathtaking for Keats as well as the audience.

Bright Star may not be every movie-goer’s cup of tea—if it even had that potential, it would have been directed by James Cameron and would feature lots of 3-D CGI and motion-capture technology—and that itself make it poetic.  It’s personal, it’s quiet, it’s pristine, and with its smooth waters which run deep, it invites the adventurous to dive in… and linger a while. 

The DVD release, with a solid selection of special features, is a great opportunity to do so.

Bright Star is rated PG for “thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking.”  Honestly, this is a work of art that is both mature and childlike.  Would that every film could take the intelligence of the audience so seriously.  But Jeff is right; this is a slow-moving film that not many adults—much less children—will have the patience for.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Bright Star.