Sunday, 8 February 2015

Ode on Romance and the Romantic

DVD Notes: "Bright Star"

Abbie Cornish reads a poem from her beloved in "Bright Star"

The Romantic poets emphasised instinct and intuition over reason and rationale, and cultivated an interest in mysticism and the supernatural, parallel, and often connected, to a reverence for the natural world. Jane Campion's 2009 film, "Bright Star", in telling the story of the romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), embodies these features enchantingly, with its adoring shots of the two lovers, of the flowers and trees constantly surrounding them, and the graceful unfolding of its love story. It preoccupies itself with the spontaneous expression of emotion, though restrained, making it a charming work worthy of the attention of any audience member, poetry scholar or otherwise.

Brawne is 18 years old at the opening, self-possessed, middle class, a prodigious flirt and devoted student of fashion, and Keats a 23-year-old writer, somewhat melancholy and seemingly idle, though he has moments of spirit and humour. She attracts his attention, and, after some minor misunderstanding over whether or not each likes the other, their fondness and attraction burgeons into a delicate love affair.

The time when the film opens is the beginning of Keats’s glorious year of poetry, as the literary critic Harold Bloom writes: “the poet in him did not catch up with the man until the autumn of 1818. In the year between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-four, certainly one of the most fecund every experienced by any poet, Keats wrote almost all of his major poetry.” But this brilliant year was filled with unhappiness. It began with the first signs of the tuberculosis that was to kill him; the beginning was largely spent nursing his brother Tom, who died of the family disease in December; and there were impediments to his love with Fanny. Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), recognising his friend’s artistic greatness, does not want him drawn into the art-destroying crudeness of a sexual affair, and makes some effort to discourage Keats and Brawne’s affections. Fanny’s mother (Kerry Fox), though she finds Keats charming and wishes him well, decides that his near poverty makes him an unsuitable match for her daughter. True, Keats cannot afford to marry, but in some ways this story is a conventional tale of frustrated young love, and he and Fanny don’t allow these obstacles to hinder them.

Campion brilliantly avoids making this into an “important” historical drama. We aren’t shown any other famous figures or told of any historical events: Byron and Shelley are never even mentioned. As was the case in real life, no one acquainted with Keats really knows who he is or of his artistic greatness, except perhaps for Brown. What the film concerns itself with, despite managing to evoke the genius of its hero, is the day-to-day life and practicalities of the romance. It is love that defines this film and its subject, made even more vivid by keeping us aware always of mortality. Yet even the passion here is understated, as it must have been in real life, due to conventions.

There are scenes in the film shot poetically, lingering on illuminated human figures, or winnowing curtains in bedrooms. And the charm of Bright Star is added to by the candid and very detailed setting in the period. Women wear bonnets; the diction, though unobtrusively so, is distinctly 19th century; there is mud in the streets and in the yard; and characters behave decorously at all times, without its requirement ever being mentioned, or even in anyone’s consciousness. And, since Fanny and Keats’s romance lasts roughly a year, Campion can’t help but to hang on to the scenes in summer. Their village is just north of London, but here is shown in all its pastoral beauty, with rays of sunshine lighting up rooms, and bathing trees and gardens. Flowers blossom and birds call, and Campion as good as reaches a visual beauty that can match Keats’s literary achievements. Campion has declared “Ode to a Nightingale” her favourite poem of all time, and shows the day Keats sits under a tree outside his house and composes it, in a single sitting. (This poem is recited in its entirety over the end credits by Whishaw.) And sentimentalising is completely eschewed in showing that the author of such great odes and lyrics as Keats was, although faced with much trouble in his life, lived surrounded by the most spectacular natural beauty. This film is both supremely romantic, and Romantic in its pursuits.

Bright Star
[Written on a Blank Page in Shakespeare's Poems, facing "A Lover's Complaint"]

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 liver ever — or else swoon to death.

Ben Whishaw in "Bright Star"

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