Monday, October 5, 2009
LA BELLE DAME (AVEC) MERCI
Eighteen-year-old Fanny Brawne is living in Hampstead, London, with her mother and two young siblings, when a couple of struggling poets move in next door. She falls in love, hard, with the cute one. In her ninth feature, writer/director Jane Campion tells the story of John Keats and his muse in visual couplets: first love is a billowing bedroom curtain filled with a summer wind, and absence of one's object is a wooden floor covered in dead butterflies.
Keats is Ben Wishaw, a weedy 28-year-old alum of the Old Vic, who is built like Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie but handsomer in the face area -- flashes of Franco (James, not Francisco). This Keats is scruffy and agitated, with a blue velvet tailcoat and ink-stained nails, the picture of a north Brooklyn fop down to the second-hand shoes. Cuddling on the writer's sofa, Cornish's Fanny Brawne (a girl of normal proportions) positively dwarfs him, but Wishaw has an intense screen pull despite stature, costume and tuberculosis. (The li'l guy is playing Ariel in Julie Taymor's The Tempest (2010), the gayest role in all of Shakespeare, which sounds PROMISING.)
There's something very 2009 going on in Bright Star -- and not just within the soundtrack, which contains smacks of synthesizer and post-post-Romantic-era harmonies, sly anachronisms not unlike Michael Nyman's beautiful score for The Piano. There's the tone, at times young and immediate as a good mumblecore film. At benefactor Charles Brown's party, the boys toss crudités at each other and goof on their friend's poetry, and then there's some live music -- it's Baroque choral, not avant-rock, but still. More than any of this, it's Campion's masterful script, (inspired by Andrew Motion's 1999 biography of the poet) which talks love in the early Nineteenth without mannerism, with a truth of female teenagehood in any era. Fanny taunts her boyfriend's jealous roommate Brown (Paul Schneider), belittles her mother's middle-class suburban values, sulks in her room sketching outfits. Bright Star doesn't stretch to ring true to the Age of its depiction, but rather focuses on the interiority of a girl Fanny's age and disposition. Abbie Cornish's exquisite hostility, self-absorbtion, pettiness and strength of heart brings her character somehow closer to Ghostworld's Enid than her more clever, restrained, and upper-middle-class Austen predecessors. When her boyfriend dies in Rome, our young lady goes Goth -- okay, she dresses in "mourning." But original designs -- and she chops her hair off, too, and walks through the woods reading (that's right) poetry -- her late love's Bright star, would I were steadfast as though art, which hungers "still to hear her tender-taken breath / and so live ever -- or else swoon to death." Gothic Romantic, and deadly serious for a first broken heart.