Tenderness may be one of the hardest things to find on movie screens. Hollywood, at least, seems to prefer acrobatic sex and heart-quickening paroxysms of violence.
Rarer is the stuff of literature and real life: the prolonged courtships, the uncertainty and frustration that can just as often characterize our romantic and platonic relationships. Maybe this is why Twilight has been such a phenomenon. The books and film dwell obsessively on all those painful but delicious, bittersweet moments before a relationship is consummated.
Contrary to the brittleness of the word, "chastity" is its own splendor of satisfaction delayed. Life is like that, composed of small, bright moments but also yawning stretches of disappointment and longing.
Jane Campion's Bright Star is a long, lingering soak in just this kind of delicately stated passion. A celebrated return to form and a Golden Palm nominee at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Bright Star recaptures some of the luster Campion has lost in the period following The Piano.
Heady, gorgeous, and saturated with feeling, Bright Star centers on the prolonged, tortured, but also blissful love affair between the 19th century romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and the young woman, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) he loved.
Though relegated to the ghetto of "frivolous" female achievement, Brawne is an artist too. Keats' tool is the pen, and Brawne's the needle: her elaborate, meticulously detailed garments — bonnets that look like diaphanous mushroom caps and outrageously ornamental upright collars — make her stand out in the gray English winter like a raspberry in cream.
As Brawne, Australian actress Abbie Cornish is astounding, portraying Keats' love with a mix of haughty pride and an innocent yearning to learn and experience. It was these traits which marked Brawne as a rebel in conservative 1818 England.
Keats and Brawne have something else fundamental in common: the painful experience of prolonged sickness and death which helps explain their life-affirming embrace of love. Keats' younger brother Tom is dying, and Brawne lost her father at an early age. The fragile tree Brawne embroiders onto a pillowcase after Tom dies is as much a poem as Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." There is something torn and lonely in both of them, and their love is a salve to all that sadness.
But their love affair is also largely hopeless, and in the manner of great tragedies, doomed. Brawne lives with her mother (Kerry Fox) and younger brother and sister in genteel poverty, and her best hope as a woman in 19th century England is to find a well-heeled husband to support her and her family. But Keats is nothing of the sort. He's a starving, sickly poet with no income, who relies on the patronage of his friend Charles Brown (the delightful Paul Schneider). Keats recognizes the inappropriateness of their love and tries his best to deflect Brawne, but if The Piano (which Bright Star recalls on many levels) proved anything, it proved the unstoppable will of a woman's heart where love is concerned.
Some will instantly write off Bright Star — as films like The Hours or La Vie En Rose have been dismissed in certain circles — as chick flick fare. The suspicion that greets films centered on relationships and complicated female characters shows our deep cultural suspicion of anything smacking of tenderness and that most derided of categories, romance. It's a pity, because, like other films in the funky, idiosyncratic Campion repertoire, Bright Star is quietly subversive stuff. It's a film that holds love above reason, society, and an economic system where men are the purse holders and women the prize.
As anyone who has seen early films like Sweetie and An Angel at My Table knows, Campion is an upstart and a rebel herself who portrays love, and also sex, very differently. Where many are inclined to see desire as something that occurs between the sheets, Campion spreads it around, to infect and infuse the very air her characters breathe.
Campion quietly, unobtrusively knocks down conventions of the bodice-ripping period piece, especially with her steady, languorous pacing. She also displays a shrewd, careful attention to the nuances of human relationships, including the fascinating, complex one between Charles Brown and John Keats. Their relationship has all the hallmarks of what contemporary audiences would call a "bromance."
Brown is jealous of the growing relationship between Brawne and best buddy Keats. But he's also a great friend who cries over the beauty of Keats' poetry and berates himself when he lets his friend down. He's complex, likable, and also a bit of a heel, and it's endless fun to watch him spar with Brawne. But his relationship with Keats redeems him and shows that beneath his sarcastic, combative surface, Brown is a man of merit to have captured Keats' friendship.
Campion is equally observant when it comes to the enmeshed fates of Brawne and her family. Her younger siblings, the tiny, pixie redhead Toots (Edie Martin) and the silent, rail-thin teenager Samuel (Thomas Sangster) act as coachmen of sorts, chaperoning their older sister on her visits to the Keats and Brown lair, to protect her reputation. But as Fanny's romance with Keats blossoms, the children become conspirators, especially Toots, who is utterly wrapped up in the air of enchantment that surrounds the couple.
Bright Star is filled with such an enormity of love and feeling, it nearly takes your breath away. The film's rapturous images and Campion's vision make you long for a world as vivid and true as this one.