Before seeing Jane Campion’s latest feature Bright Star, I knew little about the life of the poet John Keats, and I’d admired the intimacies of this film’s drama beneath the stilted dialogue and stiff costumes. I’m a fan of Jane Campion, and enjoy her idiosyncratic satire of domestic gender roles, whether these be set in a gloomy suburb or swish aristocratic estate in central Europe. I particularly liked her last film, In The Cut, an unusual but flawed twist on the slasher subgenre; whereby the cop versus killer structure is sublimated by the POV of the female victim.
Campion displays the same auteur craftsmanship as Neil Jordan, Anthony Minghella or Ang Lee, who similarly observe the damaged relationships set against tumultuous social and historical change. Often the words ‘acclaimed’, ‘prestigious’ and ‘compelling’ are liberally overused to describe the sumptuous style and content of Campion’s films, which deliver a dose high culture to Hollywood’s arthouse cinema market. When I watched The Piano a few years ago I was impressed by the colourful 19th century design of the New Zealand wilderness and the playful tone of the gothic drama (a mute mother and daughter lost in the woods with Harvey Kietel).
The components of the melodrama are skilfully developed in the use of domestic rooms embroiled in a battle of the sexes, dysfunctional families and political satire (see Harvey Kietel performing in drag for Holy Smoke). Campion’s follow up to The Piano, Portrait of a Lady, starred a pre-Moulin Rouge superstar Nicole Kidman tackling the psychological constraints imposed by Victorian society adapted from the Henry James novel. Her next two releases uneasily straddled mainstream genres where she challenged actresses by casting ditzy Hollywood blondes as fierce intellectuals: first Kate Winslet in the screwball road-movie Holy Smoke and then Meg Ryan in the slasher In The Cut, as both were adapted from novels by feminist authors and aimed at challenging gender stereotypes. Most of scenes appear to take place in kitchens, bedrooms, dining rooms and gardens as the actresses are positioned against a maelstrom of family feuds and egocentric male romances.
Where her commercial films showed an experiment with Hollywood by examining the roles of contemporary heroines navigating their feminity and sense of ‘self’ against the threat of an oppressive cultural and sexist social values, a shy and immature Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) slips under the radar without any particular defense. Fanny is portrayed as a romantic seeking to throw off her shackles and struggles with the psychological pressure of being the empowered muse for the burgeoning poet (Ben Whishaw). Here the romance remains frugal and lacks much of the seduction and high drama of the Jane Austen films. Instead it portrays the couple as timid and awkward in scenes amongst the scenes polite class society. Without the support of his friends, Keats is boyish and unsure about how to engage Fanny, in one scene he confesses that he knows nothing about women.
This is more apparent in the relationship Keats has with his close friend and colleague, Charles Brown, played as an arrogant patriarch by American actor Paul Schnieder. A love triangle ensues where emotions and communication lines are drawn and tested. Keats’ poetry is richly applied in the moments where his poems are recited. Here the young poet’s work is shown developing through the troubled love affair with his muse, beginning with the formal verse structures and classic metaphors of the Romantic movement with ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, before gradually growing into the maturity and self-reflection of ‘La Belle dame sans’ and ‘To Autumn’. This is the film’s most obvious conceit; Keats’ creative maturation directly attributed to the intimate relationship he shares with Fanny.
In fact, the narrative gives away little into the personal life of the iconic poet. There are few glimpses into the historic background of the period, which omits the most significant parts of Keats’ life, such as his training as a surgeon, the Parliamentary reforms for civil rights and his lower class origins. This is most crucial in the relationship he shares with Brown, whose financial support is dramatically retracted when he must let the property they share in south London after a damaging affair with a maid. Brown’s affluence is reflected by his chauvinism, and one which instigates Keats’ relationship to Fanny. In a confrontation between Brown and Fanny, he bitterly admits his mistake without conceding Fanny’s status. The bitter man’s angry display, while his new born and spouse laugh in the kitchen shows Campion’s fascination with repression and social manners.
Campion juxtaposes these banalities against the drama’s deeper personal conflicts. Fanny in the domestic space with her mother and mischievous sister (an image Campion has used before to represent childhood innocence) are amused but weary of the men’s charm and pretensions, not because she is sophisticated, but as she lacks knowledge and insight until Keats connects with her emotionally. Campion often uses shots of Fanny knelt down sewing and stitching garments; a domestic chore and interest in fashion that Keats initially cares little for. This battle of the sexes framed within the context of sewing and poetry reveals a mutual respect, curiosity and criticism for social convention and stereotypes of the period; perhaps a subtle anachronism.