Over a black screen, birds chirp in the near distance. The dulcet chords of a cello begin to sound, embellished by a woman’s voice moving joyfully through a sequence of notes before harmonizing with another voice. A piece of thread slips through the eye of a needle and the words “Bright Star” appear as if written carefully by hand. The needle plunges upward in surprising close-up, pushing its way through the weave of fabric, before being thrust again downward.
Thus begins Jane Campion’s luxurious seventh feature film Bright Star (2009), an award-winning portrait of the two-year relationship between the poet John Keats and a young woman, Fanny Brawne. The pair lived very close to each other in Britain’s Hampstead Village between 1818 and 1821, at which point Keats died tragically of tuberculosis in Rome at the age of 25.
As with so much of the director’s acclaimed previous work, details count and everything we need to know about the film is captured in its deft orchestration of these opening images and sounds. Bright Star, which earned awards for cinematography, production design and costume design, stitches together world and wonder, the sharp needle and rough thread that yield the clothing worn on the body melding with the ethereal words of a poet. The film is a tribute to the powerful tension between the two, between materiality and mystery, soul and body, practicality and poetry, even life and death, and of course, between male and female. Rather than merely pitch these pairs in a series of conflicting polarities, Campion instead blurs the boundaries, letting contrast rather than conflict illuminate her story such that we begin to imagine a world in which such stark divisions and the limited imagination they reflect no longer reign.
Further, the film opens specifically from the point of view of the female at its center. This is Brawne’s vision of her own handiwork; we are within her world. The next shot shows Brawne, played by a luminous Abbie Cornish, sewing next to a window; pulling back, we see that she is in turn being watched by a young girl, Margaret (Edie Martin), known in the film as “Toots.” This is a film that, like all of Campion’s others, attends to the world as seen, felt and experienced by a woman.
Campion wrote the screenplay for the film based on Andrew Motion’s 1997 book, Keats: A Biography. Motion in turn worked with Campion on the script, offering guidance, and the result is a film that at once continues Campion’s dedication to limning the nuances of women’s experience through Fanny Brawne, while also presenting the doomed relationship between a poet lacking financial prospects with grace. Campion has said that while she had easy access to the life of Keats through his letters and the biography, Brawne’s letters were not saved, so the director had to invent her story. She has also said that she opted to structure the film as a ballad, echoing the writing of Keats.
While champions of the poet and his legacy have bristled at the fact that the film does not place his elegant words at the center of the film, that’s precisely the point: Bright Star is neither hagiography nor conventional romantic biopic. Instead, it’s a respectful and often bracing rumination on cultural constraint and erotic tension in a relationship never consummated. As a poet, Keats had no hope of a solid financial future, making him unsuitable as a husband. Keats’ friend, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), a churlish defender of the poet and his creative time, provides another constraint. Brown and Brawne continuously battle each other, from one of the film’s first scenes when Brawne refuses to shake Brown’s hand through bouts of verbal sparring and insults. This triangle echoes that in Campion’s earlier film, The Piano (1993), in which a marriage is disrupted by a passionate affair; once again, the woman’s experience is both beautifully rendered and witnessed by a younger girl; this doubling acknowledges the necessity for, to echo the title of another Campion film, the evolution of a girl’s own story.
At one point near the beginning of the film, Keats, played by Ben Whishaw, explains to Brawne that “a poem needs understanding through the senses.” While Brawne may feel that she lacks the education needed to parse rhythm and meaning that constitute poetry, Campion ensures that we understand her passion for sewing as its own artform with its own sense of mystery. Brawne’s myriad dresses feature unusual pleats and complex collars, and while sewing is culturally aligned with craft rather than art, at one point, Brawne gives Keats an exquisite pillowcase embroidered with an image of a tree. It may reference a line spoken by Keats earlier: “If poetry does not come as naturally as leaves to a tree than it had better not come at all.” Brawne’s poetry is in her stiches and seams.
Film studies in recent years has expanded to attend to the ways in which films affect us through sensation, asking not how particular ideas are represented within a story but instead studying the ways in which a film is felt through the body. Bright Star may best be understood through this lens. This point is made most gracefully in scenes that capture Brawne’s longing for Keats when he is away. Brawne sprawls on a bed and reads his letters repeatedly; she lolls in a sun-dappled field of flowers; and she infuses her bedroom with living butterflies, reveling in beauty and light. As the days go by, however, the butterflies fade and die, and Brawne’s desire turns toward torment. We see these images of despair, but Campion also makes us feel the film, through framing, close-ups and magical lighting. “A poem needs understanding through the senses,” explains Keats. So too does the film Bright Star, as an experience suffused with light, music, dance, poetry, longing and loss, and a genuine respect for the mysteries of art.
Bright Star (2009 UK/Australia/France 119 minutes)
Prod Co: Pathé Renn Productions; Screen Australia; BBC Films; UK Film Council; New South Wales Film & Television Office; Hopscotch Productions; Jan Chapman Pictures. Prod: Jan Chapman Dir: Jane Campion Scr: Jane Campion, based on Keats: A Biography by Andrew Motion Phot: Greig Fraser Ed: Alexandre de Franceschi Prod Des: Janet Patterson Mus: Mark Bradshaw
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Edie Martin, Thomas Brodie-Sangster