12 December 2009

Bright Star

Written & Directed by: Jane Campion
Full credits at IMDb

It’s slow going at first for Bright Star, which chronicles the Twilight-chaste romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and an (anachronistically?) outspoken dressmaker (Abbie Cornish) near the tail end of the poet’s life, as it seems to fall victim to the familiar pitfall of the period piece: an over-reliance on surfaces, from accents and syntax to costumes and setting. Campion’s film is certainly beautiful on the outside: the ornate outfits, the painterly frames—evoking Seurat, Rembrandt et al.—and, especially, the sumptuously lit frames, all candles and sun streams, bathing the richly colored rooms in complex layers of shadow and light. Even more impressive are the exterior shots, revealing a natural world of lush gardens and alternately ripe and barren forests, which evoke a fantasy realm, a version of earth that has since become extinct.

But does Bright Star offer any pleasures deeper than these superficial ones? At first it would seem not: aside from some competent performances (and a marvelously volatile turn from Parks and Recreation’s Paul Schneider), the film revolves around a love story stilted, pretentious and twee, essentially Garden State moved to London, ca. 1818. But the failings of the first quarter give way to a glorious middle, in which Campion pitches poetry, love and nature as a Holy Trinity, each possessing a capacity for transcendent ecstasy; Camption beautifully sums up the intersection of all three in the image of a bedroom swarming with butterflies. Meanwhile, the characters work through some complex problems: the necessity of station; the conflict between love and art, work and women. In its third act, Bright Star falls back into coasting on appearances and the familiarities of the tragic love story. But by then, it’s much easier to go along for the ride without complaining. Grade: B

Watch the trailer:

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