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.
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.
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.