Bright Star: A Thing of Indescribable Beauty — But Audiences Don’t Get It
Starring: Abbie Cornish, Ben Wishaw, Paul Schneider and Kerry Fox
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
By Scott Marks
Jerry Lewis once confided that Hollywood is in its current guileless state because juvenile studio execs have to stop at Toys R Us every day before heading in to work.
He’s right, of course. I stood in the lobby after last week’s packed screening of “Bright Star” and listened carefully to the post-show rejoinders as patrons mournfully exited the auditorium. There were a few discerning audience members who appeared to have caught the beauty in Jane Campion’s latest period drama, but for the most part the initial reactions all had a familiar ring to them: “Too slow!” “Man, did that need a kick in the ass!” “Boooooring!”
Have American audiences become so jaded by thudding action pictures, comic book gore and wafer thin characterizations that when a movie actually tries to tell an emotionally complex romance they spend more time staring at their watches than they do the screen?
“Bright Star” is set in a galaxy far, far away before humankind was safely ensconced in their abodes pretending that they are actually reaching out and touching someone via a computer screen. The film is based on the last three years of the life of English romantic poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw), who died of tuberculosis at the early age of 25, and his love for his 18-year-old next door neighbor Fannie Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
With cellular technology not even a speck on the horizon, the characters in Jane Campion’s impeccable recreation of London in 1818 had but two forms of communication to rely on: the written word and oral discourse. They had to choose their words wisely to both maximize impact and entertain themselves.
The first poem read is arguably the author’s most famous: “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever.” Campion does her best to spark familiarity with audiences presumably unfamiliar with the poet and weaned on Merchant and Ivory period pictures. Unlike M&I, Campion is not content to simply let the costumes and production design tell the story.
Fannie is a seamstress and, as she points out to Keats and his writing partner Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), her sewing brings in more money than that of both writers combined. The fact that Keats is a broke bard unable to afford his beloved the lifestyle she has become accustomed to prohibits him from falling in love with her.
As in all of the director’s work there are moments of near indescribable beauty to delight and captivate the eyes. At the hint of first love, the heretofore muted colors of the woods explode as Fannie finds herself encased in a sea of lilacs. Later, Keats ascends the tallest tree and finds a spot on which to gaze into the heavens and offer silent thanks.
There are also instances of supreme heartbreak and Cornish rises to the occasion. If there is one complaint to be found in the film it’s Wishaw’s wishy-washy performance. While he looks the part of a TB victim he is no match for Fannie’s outspoken insolence.
Critics and audiences alike have been not been kind to Campion post-“The Piano” output. While both movies ask the same question — is it possible for art and romantic love to peacefully coexist? – I fear that audiences will not find “Bright Star” as accessible as the Oscar® winning masterwork and word of mouth will quickly snuff out Campion’s “Star.” See it on the big screen while you can, for a home video viewing is certain to diminish the film’s visual power.
One bit of faint praise that has been making the critical rounds concerns talk of Jane Campion’s “return to form.” How is it possible for someone to return to a form of greatness they never left?
Scott Marks was born and raised in some of the finest single screen movie theaters in Chicago. He moved to San Diego in 2000 and has never looked back. Scott authors the blog emulsioncompulsion.com and is co-host of KPBS-Radio’s Film Club of the Air. Please address any bouquets or brickbats to firstname.lastname@example.org.