This could be known as the Jane Campion dilemma, after the film’s talented, maddening director, who always gets caught thinking about how to swim to shore. Sometimes she swims to shore even when she’s not in the lake. At her best she is the absolute master of ritual, passion and restraint. At her worst, she is an over- decorator of temporarily fashionable received wisdom that doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of the camera.
The referendum for this dilemma is the moment in The Piano when Holly Hunter takes the plunge overboard strapped to the sinking ivories. Even the film’s admirers must admit this is an overly poetic gesture that nearly takes the film down to Davy Jones’ Locker with it, redeemed only by the shockingly sudden revelation of her first words. And if you’ve seen the last half hour of Holy Smoke!, then you know … Holy Smoke!
With the immaculate Bright Star, Campion allows us for once to swim to the middle of the lake and not worry about the shore, to simply luxuriate in her story of passion and her quiet directorial ferocity. Bright Star finds her at her most relaxed, most charming, most intellectually subtle and most passionate.
The story of the three-year long nineteenth-century love affair between Keats and his neighbor Fannie Brawne, Bright Star is foremost about wildly passionate love. But given Keats’ early death, it is not an easy story of love. If things don’t work, there’s no going back to the architect Mom likes. It’s love as mystical investment, as frightening as it can be joyous. It also relates what it is like to be loved so thoroughly as to inspire some of the English language’s greatest words.
But this is not Keats’ film but that of Brawne, and Bright Star is a tribute to seduction and the mystique of feminine beauty. I say tribute quite deliberately. While American films associate seduction with feminine threat, here it is viewed as the greatest inspiration. Keats’ obnoxious best friend Charles Brown might dismiss Fannie’s talent for lovely and colorful dressmaking as flirtation and frippery. But we are invited to see it as the maximization of feminine adornment and her natural power. She cannot match her lover’s words with a pen, so she does so with a needle. As she is the muse for Keats’ poetry, he becomes – first exuberantly and then poignantly – the muse for her own form of expression.
Ben Whishaw never once lets you doubt his Keats-ness, and when was the last time that Paul Schneider didn’t steal his scene? Fanny’s quest for substantive acceptance is particularly telling for Cornish, whose roles until this moment have consisted of lovely adornment. I’m still not sure this signals a great talent, as the necessary characterization is so restrained that it is hard to say. But she fits it like a long elegant violet glove.
The real stars are the astounding art direction, set design, and composition. It’s a melody of mise-en-scene, with all things in the picture working to one harmonious end, under the stunning control of Campion. What interests her most is the ritualization of passion, and the way that human beings tapdance about the edges of propriety to satisfy their desire. In this she shares concerns with Stanley Kubrick’s great Barry Lyndon (I’ve called The Piano “the female Barry Lyndon.”). But whereas Kubrick shapes his story in part into an anti-authoritarian polemic that reflects upon modernity, Campion invests deeply in the personal feeling, and simply makes you feel what it was like to be that person living in that place at that time.