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John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), Bright Star John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), Bright Star
THE LIFE OF A WRITER IS HARD TO BRING TO DRAMATIC LIFE ON SCREEN. WRITING CAN BE A SOLITARY JOURNEY WHERE THE RAW DRAMA IS INTERNALISED, GOING ON IN THE MIND, THE BODY, THE FRENETIC PACING OR ANXIOUS WAITING OF FINGERTIPS, HOLDING A PEN, ON THE TYPEWRITER, THE KEYBOARD. TRANSLATING THAT FRACTIOUS INNER WORLD CAN BE A CHALLENGE, SO BIOPICS OF THE LIVES OF WRITERS TEND TO FOCUS ON THEIR RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHERS, THEIR ADDICTIONS OR THEIR HARROWING PATH TO SELF-DESTRUCTION.

From The Edge of Love (Dylan Thomas) to Sylvia (Plath) to Factotum (Charles Bukowski) there’s usually a scene where the writer self-combusts, tearing the room apart, smashing a plate or glass, throwing his/her manuscript out the window, grabbing a knife or a gun. Hell, it looks good on screen, and gives actors a chance to flex their dramatic muscles. It sure beats staring glassy-eyed at a computer screen, adjusting the venetian blinds, making a tenth cup of tea to procrastinate, curling up on the lounge underlining passages for future research, and waiting hours for the manuscript to print.

Jane Campion has always had literary leanings in the filmmaking projects she takes on. In an early interview, she spoke about how seeing Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (the Miles Franklin biopic) proved to her that directing was a possible career choice for a woman (Deb Verhoeven, Jane Campion, Routledge Film Guidebooks, UK, 2009). Her first feature, Two Friends, was based on a short story by Helen Garner. The critically acclaimed An Angel At My Table, originally a mini-series, was based on the life of New Zealand writer Janet Frame who spent many of her formative years in institutions with incorrectly diagnosed schizophrenia (in one scene, pre-empting Campion’s latest work, Bright Star, Frame’s best friend Poppy quotes Ode to a Nightingale at length in a cow paddock: “We have to learn it by heart”; later, becoming more and more isolated, Frame says, “My only romance was in poetry and literature”).

Campion’s less successful Portrait of a Lady and In the Cut offered very different subject matter but were film adaptations of successful books, nonetheless, and Gail Jones argues the strong impact of Emily Bronte and the poets Blake, Tennyson and Byron on the mood of The Piano (The Piano, Australian Screen Classics, Currency Press, Sydney, 2007; reviewed RT80, p34). Campion even took the unusual step of publishing ‘novel’ versions of her films, The Piano and Holy Smoke. Her latest offering, Bright Star, tackles the relationship between Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw) before the poet’s death at 25. After making In the Cut, Campion told the media she was planning to take four years off. When interviewed about her time away from filmmaking, she commented, “I didn’t think I would want to do anything much, but I found that after a year or so...I was doing things like embroidering pillow slips and very crafty simple stuff.” Out of the quiet and silence, it seems, Bright Star emerged.

In The New York Review of Books, Christopher Ricks argues that Campion’s film is mistaken about the nature of imagination when it comes to a poet, especially Keats: “film cannot but show in pictures” (New York Review of Books, vol. 56, no. 20, Dec 17, 2009). He is hard on the director, stating that a film should never picture what a great writer has already beautifully captured, allowing us to imagine instead. He gives an example where Keats talks of snow and we simultaneously see snow in the image. When he speaks of being ‘pillowed’ he is lying with Fanny, resting his head. But in the course of writing, a novel for example, a writer may repeat herself many times, making overlapping allusions to make things clearer for the reader. And it works here within the film’s frames, especially if a viewer is not as conversant with Keats’ poetry as experts like Ricks. Campion’s view is inclusive and the linking of text with image acts as a springboard for our imagination: the images, like Keats lying as if in the clouds amid the treetops, are often so exquisite (cinematographer Greig Fraser) they bring the words to life, rather than trampling them underfoot.

Some of these scenes are also based on historical account. In a letter, Keats’ friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), who in the film tussles with his seeming love and envy of both Fanny and Keats, described the background to the writing of Ode to a Nightingale, where the bird had built a nest near the house. Keats loved her song and took his chair out to the plum tree to listen for hours (Elizabeth Cook ed, Introduction to John Keats, Selected Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1998). Those moments of silence, of being able to be still, to listen, to observe nature, to compose, are captured well by Campion. She’s always been interested in the link between silence and expression. In The Piano, the central character Ada (Holly Hunter) is mute, unable to express herself except through her music; in the final scene of An Angel At My Table, Janet Frame is most happy in solitude, after finding the daily struggle of communicating (other than writing) a punishing act. As she works alone on her manuscript in a caravan, reading aloud the final lines, Campion, writes Gail Jones, “affirms a connection between silence and creativity, and indeed affirms the paradoxical ‘wording’ of silence.”

Ricks argues that “Jane Campion’s mind sought to imagine into another, and yet it did not really put its mind to imagining, let alone imagining into the mind’s eye.” But like Keats’ star that watches and gazes—in the sonnet from which the film takes its title—Campion is a sharp observer, and yet she also allows, throughout her films and contrary to Ricks’ criticism, a “sense of touch” to be “imagined by the reader.” Vivian Sobchack argues that The Piano is less about vision than touch, the “capacity to implicate the viewer’s body” (Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Culture, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004). She talks specifically about fingers, and in Bright Star we tend to focus on Fanny’s senses rather than Keats’: her hands as she crafts stitches onto a pillowslip, copying a tree outside the window. An exquisite example is the wall that divides the two almost-lovers as they position their single beds in adjoining rooms. They’re so close they can hear the sounds of sleep; if the wall were to be removed they would be together, lovers in a double bed, but, apart, their longing is palpable as Fanny traces the surface that separates them, the viewer imagining Keats feeling her touch. As Fanny lies on the bed letting the wind caress her—through the window against her layer-upon-layer of lovingly stitched clothes—it’s her mind and body we imagine into, not those of Keats which are further removed.

Ricks even goes so far as to say Campion does not respect Keats and his writing. This seems hard to justify, given her record of sensitive cinematic interpretation of writers’ lives. Campion said, “With An Angel At My Table I felt any treatment that interfered with your relationship to Janet Frame would feel like a filmmaking conceit. You needed to keep it very simple” (cited in Verhoeven). Helen Garner describes the process of working on Two Friends: “I was surprised at how Jane could take an idea of mine and take a different slant on it, and yet understand exactly what I was on about. She’d find a richness I didn’t know was there” (cited in Verhoeven). In Bright Star, there’s a great sense of tragedy in the loss of Keats, of his talent, of his strength, of his compassion, of the “negative capability [that] generated poetry that depicted changing sensations rather than articulating settled meanings.” (Sophie Gee, “Bright Stars”, The Monthly, Melbourne, Dec 2009-Jan 2010).

Elizabeth Cook comments that “to an unusual degree Keats writes in active and conscious relationship with others” and Campion stresses this. The men’s work, and the writing, is collaborative: they prance through meadows, they read aloud to each other, they lie dramatically awaiting inspiration; but Fanny’s art is done behind closed doors, alone, dreaming, embraced by the body—until a late scene where, finally, she walks over the threshold to breach the men’s creative space. Campion prefers to focus on women’s work, the seamless stitching, beautiful threads, so precise and delicate they might go unnoticed.

Like Keats, Jane Campion is an artist who trades in the realm of the senses. As with An Angel At My Table, her Bright Star is a sensuous delight, which successfully evokes the work and vision of being a writer (or seamstress) without excessive drama or sentiment: the time alone, the collaboration at times, the critical thinking, the musings in the meadow at nothing or everything, the recreation of a shared moment into the shape of love. Campion also creates space for the viewer’s imagination, a longing for more words, a desire to seek out Keats’ poetry as Whishaw’s voice reads it aloud after the final image fades and the end credits roll.


Bright Star, director and screenwriter Jane Campion, actors Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Paul Schneider, producers Jan Chapman, Caroline Hewitt, Mark L. Rosen, cinematography Greig Fraser, editor Alexandre de Franceschi, production design & costume Janet Patterson

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 18

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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