13 November 2009

O Bright-Eyed Hope, My Morbid, Fancy Cheer

I thought it was appropriate to spend my last night as a 25-year-old watching a film about a poet who died at the age of 25. What better than to put some perspective on my thankfully un-TB-threatened world, eh? Perhaps it wasn't the happiest way to pass the evening but it was a warm, sensuous, engaging film nonetheless.

Jane Campion's film Bright Star tells the story of the last three years of John Keats's life and of his relationship with Fanny Brawne. In some ways, it's a lot like Love Story: girl meets boy, they fall in love but their differing social statuses keep them apart and in the middle of this struggle, one of them dies young. Bright Star is the same length as Glorious 39 but unlike the fast-paced, tension-filled movie I saw on Thursday, Bright Star is languorously slow, lush and voluptuous. In some ways, Keats's inevitable death isn't enough of a denouement because, while this is tragic, much of the film is spent with Fanny and Keats unable to fully express their love for each other with only short bursts of time when they can be happy together interspersed with their physical and emotional separation. "We've woven a web together," Keats says (approximately), "and while it's attached to the world, it's quite separate from the world."

Fanny's family aren't rich but they are comfortable. She and her widowed mother and younger brother and sister live in a nice enough house with servants and they eventually move into half of the rambling Hampstead estate where Keats also resides, intermittently. Her very sweet mother wants Fanny to be happy but equally thinks that her daughter needs to marry someone better placed to support her than the impoverished poet whose work is, as yet, unacclaimed. Keats's best friend and self-proclaimed protector, Charles Brown, also does his best to keep the pair apart but, of course, to no avail.

What girl could resist a dashing young poet reading her his beautiful poems amid a glorious, bluebell-filled forest? Fanny Brawne certainly couldn't and despite the warnings, plunged right in--to Keats's heart, rather than the Hampstead ponds. The film is, for the most part, gorgeously shot: lush green forests, a room filled with colourful, exotic butterflies, the bright dresses Fanny wears that she has made herself (they may be stylish but they aren't very flattering, although with Abbie Cornish wearing them, that doesn't really matter), and the endless letters oozing love and folded up small so that more words would fall out as they are unfolded. It's always sunny, even in autumn where the sun breaks through the orange leaves.

And then Keats becomes very ill. TB, it seems. This adds a whole new level of difficulty to the relationship between him and Fanny, when their situation was complicated enough anyway. His friends, including Brown, insist that he head south to the warmer climes of Italy, where he might recuperate. This entails a painful goodbye scene in Keats's bedroom where he says he "won't see her again on this earth." Fanny begs him to stay but he can't; his friends have paid his passage, he says, and he can't let them down. Probably, he just didn't want her to watch him fading further and dying. Instead, they slip into their other world and imagine the house they would live in when he returns and the life they would lead.

After he leaves, the film becomes very grey, lifeless and lethargic. No more flowery meadows, no more butterflies, no more laughter. And this heavy sadness continues until Brown breaks the news that Keats has died. Abbie Cornish is brilliant in this scene, her anguished sobs are truly heart-wrenching and she struggles to breathe, perhaps in sympathy with Keats's damaged lungs. After two hours of the relationship building up tantalisingly slowly, it ends rather suddenly with Fanny walking out alone into the snow. Monochrome again. None of the loud, cheerful music of the opening sequence. Just silence. And the end.

Not a happy film but a bright one with the richness and sensory detail contrasting with the air of wistfulness, regret and despair that is usually hovering in the background. Both Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, who plays Keats, portray the characters sensitively and warmly. And on a windy, rainy Friday night, Bright Star r.

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