Sunday, 20 May 2012

Scene on a Sunday: Bright Star

What better than some sedate Jane Campion for some Sunday relaxation? Incidentally, as easily charming as Bright Star is, it’s not the easiest film for a Scene on a Sunday post. In fact, I feel as if this scene – as lovely as it may be – is not the finest entry for those new to Campion, or the film. But, for those fortunate enough to have witnessed the lushness – here goes.
Set-Up: John Keats and Fanny Brawne have been forging a very reticent romantic liaisons when he goes off to London for a bit. After an exchange where fiery Fanny convinces (or tries to) Mr. Brown of her adeptness at poetry by boasting of Milton’s rhyme-scheme he sends her a saucy valentine card. Cut to a pacing Keats freshly back from London…

I’d considered this scene from my Wet Blog-a-thon a few weeks back, but it doesn’t quite work as a wet scene – it only begins in the rain.

Mention must be made of the very good stellar Kerry Fox who plays Mrs. Brawne. The role does not demand much, but Fox is excellent.

          MRS BRAWNE: “Fanny, Mr. Keats is behaving very oddly. Should I invite him inside?”

Oh, the oddities of romance in the Romantic age.

          JOHN: “Mr. Brown sent you a Valentine?”

          FANNY (OS): “I think it was a joke.”

          CHARLES: “Keats! Keats! John, wait. John”

It’s easy to consider this scene in our contemporary world as rather quaint. After all, a simple valentine does not divulge much. But, for one – the 19th century’s courting affections were much different and it’s a nice way of establishing early on in the film how reserved Keats was about ostensible shows of affection for the opposite sex.

And, really, name me five – hell, name me one – 2009 films that were photographed with as much intricate beauty as Bright Star? The virtual absence of this film from almost every awards race of that year still confounds me.

          JOHN: “I was away but ten days, Brown, with you encouraging me to stay on and get well. Now, you write Miss Brawne a Valentine card. Are you lovers?”

This scene plays out mostly as a showcase for Whishaw, even though the traits he displays here are not the traits which define his performance. The raised voice of Keats here are not the typical nature of the Keats we know historically, or the Keats of the film.

          CHARLES: “John.”

          JOHN: “Is that the truth?”

          CHARLES: “Easy.”

          JOHN: “You sent a card, Charles! You have the income to marry, where I have not. Did you accept him, Miss Brawne?”

          CHARLES: “John, I sent that Valentine…. It was only a jest.”

          JOHN: “For whom? I’m not laughing. Miss Brawne is not laughing!”
Watching this scene again, it really does emerge perceptibly how much of a role reversal it is for Fanny and John. Fanny is almost always the one with the quick words, but she’s unnaturally silent here. What is she thinking in those images?

          CHARLES: “John, I wrote that Valentine to amuse Fanny, who makes a religion of flirting. John, she’s what? A poetry scholar one week and, what, a military expert the next? (Obscured: JOHN: “You disgust me.”) It is a game. It is a game to her. She collects suitors. John…. John.”

          JOHN: “There is a holiness to the heart’s affections, know you nothing of that? Believe me, it’s not pride.”
Biopics of artistic creatures – specifically poets – will always be difficult, I feel, because the specific artistic ways of these creatures is difficult to capture on film. The Virginia Woolf section of The Hours sings because Daldry is able to capture the inclinations of Woolf’s writing and Campion (who also writes the screenplay) manages to – excellently – blend her own dialogue with potential dialogue of Keats, and then Whishaw (my best Actor of 2009) manages to telegraph it beautifully, too.

I will be honest and say, though, despite Keats’ poetry and Campion’s words – the finest moments in Bright Star are those without dialogue. It’s such an unbelievably gorgeous film to watch.

Even the striding walk over is unlike the natural gait of Keats elsewhere in the film, but Whishaw is charming throughout.

          JOHN: “You’re in love with Mr. Brown?”

To mix my literary periods, Fanny’s silence probably comes off to Keats the way that Thomas More’s silence might have come off to some. But, she’s not being silent to suggest that she’s saying yes – but frustrated Keats isn’t able to discern.

          JOHN: “Why don’t you speak?”

          CHARLES: “She can’t speak because she only knows to flirt and sew. Isn’t that right?”
I haven’t spoken at length of Schneider’s work here which moves from hilarious to annoying to moving all in the two hours of the film – as it should be. Brown is a friend, a quasi-villain and comic relief all wrapped in one and Schneider sells it (my Supporting Actor pick of 2009)

I worry that that amazing Abbie shall not be able to top her work here. Ben has managed to do so in The Hour (good lord, how I hope he at least gets that Emmy nod) but Abbie hasn’t been lucky enough to enjoy great roles since. I hope the films on the horizon allow her half the dramatic worth of Fanny.

          CHARLES: “Yes, and read all Milton, whose rhymes do not pounce, Miss Brawne, because there are none!”
What an annoyance he is in this scene, but excellently so.

          CHARLES: “John, there are one or two of her kind in every fashionable drawing room of this city gasping over skirt lengths.”
It’s lines like these which always seem to suggest that the disgust Brown displays for Fanny stems from his annoyance that she does not care for him instead of Keats. But, I like that Jane doesn’t turn her narrative into the potential love triangle aspect of the film. Like a Keats poem everything is beautifully understated.

          JOHN: “I’m sorry. We can have a poetry lesson tomorrow.”

          FANNY: “No, I only want to dance and flirt, talk of flounces and ribbons till I find my happiness and humour.”
And, Fanny’s passion returns as John returns to his default confused expression – the anger gone out of his system.

And, off she stalks as the screen fades to black. Perhaps not the finest scene in Bright Star, but in a film where the entirety plays like one continued symphony it’s difficult to excise specific scenes – which is, of course, part of its beauty.

Of the films I’m apt to write often about Bright Star is the one which seems to be most often forgotten. Any one care to commiserate with me on the beauty of Bright Star. “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art…” Did you wish you were steadfast and lovely as Bright Star?


Squasher88 said...

Funny, I was just thinking about "Bright Star" recently. Specifically, the scene where Fanny finds out that John is dead ("I can't breathe"). Such good acting. Great post.

Paolo said...

I find Paul Schneider kind of grating and him leaving P&R for movies was too risky. One of these days I'll find out what the auteurs see in him. But I will say that his off-mark masculinity is remarkable.

ruth said...

I should give film another shot as I wasn't in love w/ Bright Star the first time around... could be that I saw this with a bunch of people so there's a lot of distraction. I do remember how lovely Abbie Cornish is and her performance is amazing!

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

shane without a doubt one of the most moving reactions to death. the crying there was so authentic.

paolo do you find him grating generally? or just specifically here? it's odd, i loved him on p&R and as great as scott and lowe are i still miss him, but i'd hoped his movie career would be more significant after this :(

ruth i'm intrigued by if you'd like it a second time around, but i'm not certain you would. glad we can agree on abbie being excellent, though.