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Bright Star (2009)

Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw

Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw

Jane Campion has had her ups and downs. First getting attention as an independent filmmaker in Australia, she broke into Hollywood with an offbeat fairy tale, The Piano. Her much anticipated follow-up, Portrait of a Lady, tanked at the box office and didn’t appeal to critics. Nobody knew what to do with the lovely and disturbing Holy Smoke, and In the Cut, a modern day noir, was a little too twisted for mainstream audiences.

With Bright Star, Campion went back to making small films for small audiences. But maybe intimate is a better word than small. This quiet, introspective movie may have been shot on a limited budget, but it has more weight than almost anything made for mainstream audiences. If Campion has turned away from Hollywood, it’s only so she could embrace the bristling honesty that’s at the core of her work.

Bright Star tells the story of the romance between Fanny Brawne and John Keats. Brawne was an independent-minded young woman in love with the art of making clothes. Keats was a willful, brilliant young man obsessed with the art of making poetry. Their relationship was a slow, deliberate dance that started with them circling each other cautiously and ended with them embracing each other rapturously. It’s easy to see why the material appealed to Campion. She’s always been fascinated by relationships. And in speaking about Bright Star, she’s said that she was interested in telling a story about people who talked.

Words are crucial to this movie. The words spoken by these people are full of meaning. The characters write letters, read aloud, quote from memory. These people take words seriously, sometimes too seriously. An offhand opinion can start an argument. A light remark may cut someone deeply. In part this is because these lovers, at times so supremely confident, are also terribly insecure. If they burn others with their scorn, it’s probably because they feel they’re burning inside themselves.

A young woman completely absorbed in her work.

A young woman completely absorbed in her work.

Bright Star is a period piece, but Campion doesn’t just take us back to another time, she immerses us in it. This film is so sensually rich you can feel the crisp fabrics and smell the freshly cut flowers. Image and sound are carefully woven together, allowing us to experience the pace and feel of this vanished world. We see the way light falls across a finished hardwood floor or filters down through a grove of trees in spring, courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser. We hear the faint rustle of stiff skirts bustling down a dark hallway and the hushed chatter of birds drifting on the ether of a lazy afternoon. I wish I had a better idea of who to congratulate for the ravishing sound design, but in this area the credits are complex and not always easy to decipher. I hope that I’m not too far off in singling out sound effects designer Craig Butters, production sound mixer John Midgley, and sound effects editor Sean O’Reilly. My apologies to those others whose names I haven’t mentioned.

Campion credits Janet Patterson, who designed the costumes, for bringing an organic approach to her work, finding clothes that fit the actors rather than dressing them in fashions drawn on a page. Fanny’s dresses, hats, and shoes all show the meticulous care she takes in everything she wears. John’s clothes, on the other hand, show how little he thinks about his wardrobe. His mind is on other things. Patterson also served as production designer, and she shows the same care in creating the settings. The rooms these people occupy feel lived in, the poets lounging in their dusky library surrounded by stacks of books, the Brawnes busying themselves about the house in their tidy, joyful domesticity.

Abbie Cornish and Edie Martin

Abbie Cornish and Edie Martin

Campion’s technique is more simple and direct here than in her previous films, but her insights are a complex as ever. She seems to have relaxed into a kind of serene classicism. In Bright Star she chooses set-ups that are more or less straightforward, finding compositions that catch what’s happening between the characters without driving it home. This puts the focus on the actors, and the leads deliver wonderfully nuanced performances. Abbie Cornish uses the slightest changes in her expression to register sudden, sometimes violent, changes in Fanny’s mood. As played by Ben Whishaw, John may seem distracted, disengaged, but it slowly becomes apparent that he’s keenly aware of the world around him and painfully sensitive to it. Paul Schneider is excellent as John’s zealously devoted and very jealous friend. Thomas Brodie-Sangster doesn’t have much dialogue, but he plays Fanny’s brother Samuel with an easy grace. And I have to say that Edie Martin has a kind of magical charm as Toots.

It’s not easy for directors like Campion to get films made. A project like this is clearly not going to make it with mainstream audiences, which means running down the money often takes longer than making the movie. I hope she’s done with Hollywood, because I’ve seen so many filmmakers get beaten up trying to play that game. But going the independent route isn’t easy either. It usually means more control, but it also means working like a dog to get funding, and a lot less attention when your work finally gets shown. It’s a tough gig. We should do everything we can to support her, and all those like her.

BS Walk

In the Cut (2003)

Mark Ruffalo and Meg Ryan

Mark Ruffalo and Meg Ryan

There’s some disagreement about whether In the Cut is a thriller or not. It was certainly marketed that way, and I feel pretty certain that’s the way the filmmakers pitched the project. Jane Campion had enjoyed critical and commercial success with The Piano, but her next two films got mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office. My guess is that she decided to play it safe and make a genre film about a serial killer in order to improve her track record in Hollywood. The funny thing is, Campion doesn’t know how to play it safe. She’s always pushing the limits, and with In the Cut she pushed them way beyond what critics and audiences were willing to accept. She may have set out to make a thriller, but instead she made a darkly sensuous, deeply disturbing movie that’s about as far from the standard Hollywood murder mystery as you can get.

Anyone who watches this movie expecting a thriller is going to be totally disappointed. In the Cut isn’t just another movie about a serial killer stalking women. In fact, Campion isn’t even interested in the mechanics of making a suspense flick. Rather than giving us a routine genre film where the women are basically just bait, she broadens the concept to include the everyday violence that men commit against women, whether it’s verbal, emotional or physical.

The main characters are half-sisters, Frannie and Pauline, played by Meg Ryan and Jennifer Jason Leigh. They had the same father but different mothers, and this is the psychic crux of the whole movie. Their father married four times, apparently going from one woman to another, and both daughters are still dealing with the damage, still carrying the hurt of having been abandoned. Throughout the film we see scenes of a fantasy courtship, Frannie’s mother and father meeting and getting engaged as they ice skate in a wintry landscape. The images have a fairy tale feel, but that doesn’t mean there will be a happy ending. In fact, by the end of the movie we see that this story is as brutal as anything set down by the Brothers Grimm.

Actually, the whole film is a fairy tale. Symbols abound, and Campion isn’t shy about the way she uses them. New York City becomes a whirling surrealist landscape filled with floating petals, flowery hearts, jeweled rings and tall red lighthouses. As in a fairy tale, the half-sisters are complete opposites. Frannie is a repressed college teacher who lives in a world of words. She isn’t afraid of men, but she is determined to keep them at arm’s length. Her sister Pauline is completely uninhibited and embraces the sensual side of life, going from one man to another looking for love.

In the Cut isn’t pornographic, and it’s not erotic either. Campion finds a space between the two, and it’s an uncomfortable space. The sex is unusually explicit for a Hollywood movie, but it doesn’t exploit sex the way many commercial films do. At the same time, the scenes that show Frannie and Molloy making love aren’t really a turn on. There’s a current of tension that runs through every scene, and the threat of violence always seems to be lurking just beneath the surface. This isn’t just because the film is about a serial killer. Bloodshed and death seem to find their way into even the most casual conversations. The film starts with the sisters talking about how slang words are either about sex or violence or both. The macho banter of the two cops reduces women to nothing more than a hole. Frannie meets with one of her students and he talks obsessively about John Wayne Gacy.

Campion creates this dark, disturbing world with the help of some gifted collaborators. Production designer David Brisbin and art director David Stein give us an expressionist New York defined by dirty reds and fetid greens. Cinematographer Dino Beebe takes this palette and uses it to help define the film’s murky, ambiguous mindscape. And the images are complemented beautifully by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson’s abstract, brooding score. Technically, yes, the film is a mystery, because it’s about the search for a killer. But on a deeper level, it’s truly mysterious. Campion isn’t afraid to show us a world where conflicting emotions lead people into random, impossible relationships and feelings that can’t be resolved. She isn’t telling us to embrace sex or to try and escape violence. She seems to be saying that both are part of life. And that we should get used to it.