Female Filmmaker Friday: Bright Star, 2009 (dir. Jane Campion)
In honor of director Jane Campion being the head of this year’s Cannes Film Festival jury and this film’s five-year anniversary (it premiered at Cannes on May 15th, 2009), I decided I would finally write about Bright Star. I love this movie so dearly that I know I won’t be able to cover everything that I love about it (I could write a whole book!), so instead I have picked out a few of my favorite moments from the film.
The first time I saw this film was early 2010 and I was pretty depressed and living in the back of my parents’ house and I rented it and watched it with my mother and it moved me so dearly I wanted to bawl right then and there, but I didn’t want to upset my mom, so I said I would take it back to the post office (about a five min drive). I did that. Then I drove up as far into the mountains as I could (my parents live in a high desert) and just sat in nature and cried for like twenty minutes. When I came back about an hour later, my mom was like, “Are you okay. You were gone for a long time.” And I was like, “I’m fine!” and then ran to my room and ordered the movie from Amazon right away. I subsequently watched it at least once a week for most of 2010 and since then have watched it at least fifty times. I sob every damn time.
I love how when Fanny (Abbie Cornish) first meets Keats (Ben Whishaw), he’s broody, and a little rude – but she is sassy right back – reminding him that her stitches (she makes all her own clothes) had more admirers than he and his friend Charles Brown have combined – and that she can make money from it. It’s a very forward conversation, and one I’m sure many women of that time would not have even dreamed to have. Keats then calls her a minxstress as she leaves. He uses this pet name throughout the film. It’s a great introduction to their characters and to the intimate nature that their relationship is headed.
The next time they meet, he kids her again (this time about her dress, but in a very harmless, flirty way), then she reveals that she went out and bought his latest published poem. I love the honesty of this scene because both parties are a little awkward, but you can tell they are destined for more. Fanny says she didn’t understand his poem, but she could tell the beginning was perfect (she even memorized it!). Keats later reveals he has a sick brother and Fanny opens up about her father who was ill and died when she was a child. Their connection strengthens.
I’m skipping through quite a bit of the film to get to this moment, after Keats’s brother has died (Fanny stayed up all night embroidering a pillow slip for him!), she manages to invite him to stay with them for Christmas. There’s a great moment with him and her family, but after they leave, he ever so gently touches her hand. This is so erotic. Like, sooooo erotic. It’s one of the most erotic scenes I’ve ever seen! It’s such a tame action for modern times, but back then it was a very loaded thing to do and Campion manages to capture that tension beautifully.
I should write a bit more about Brown because Paul Schneider does an amazing job making you really hate this character for most of the movie and then towards the end you feel how much he truly loved Keats (even though you still sort of hate him). This scene comes after he’s majorly teased Fanny then sends her a joke Valentine while Keats was away. This causes strife for the would-be lovers. Keats and Fanny are both so hurt by Brown, but then Keats’s reaction isn’t the best and Fanny leaves them both in a field, frustrated and angry.
Things eventually mend between the two and Fanny and her family begin renting the other side of the house where Keats and Brown live. This is when we get one of the most visually stunning and emotionally tender scenes in the film. Now the two lovers are just separated by a wall, but it may as well be the entire world.
I love the part where Keats finally makes his feelings known to Fanny and the two share their first kiss – another insanely electric and erotic scene. But I also love this moment with Fanny sister Toots (Edie Martin). It’s such a sweet moment and also shows the great intimacy these two share.
I love the interaction between Keats and nature in this film. He’s always in a tree or under a tree and when he’s not – when he’s the most sick – he’s least happy. If you’re familiar with Keats’s poems (and you should be!) you can see how the world in which he lived really inspired his work.
The scenes where Fanny is depressed because Keats has gone away with no letters and then when she first gets a letter from Keats are so perfectly done. First we get utter lovesick depression, then we get love-induced mania. It’s a pretty accurate depiction of first love and swelling emotions that come with.
Of course there is the famous butterfly scenes. So many butterflies! So beautifully shot. Here’s the quote that prompted Fanny to start keeping butterflies:
“I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”
If you haven’t read the Fanny Brawne/John Keats letters, I highly suggest that you seek them out (there’s a really nice movie tie-in edition that was released by Penguin).
Apparently Ben Whishaw learned how to use quill and ink while researching for this role and all of the letters from Keats to Fanny in the film where handwritten by him. The script contains a lot of verbatim quotes from the Keats letters – which is why the Academy declared the film’s screenplay an Adapted Screenplay and not Original, which in 2009 was a much tighter category, thus she did not get a nomination. In fact, this film was only nominated for Costume Design (and the film it lost to really should not have beat it!). Ugh, I just love this sequence so much. It’s so gorgeous and so romantic and so hopeful.
The two lovers become very intimate (but not that intimate – which is brought up in a later scene so subtly that I didn’t realize that’s what they were talking about for the first few times I watched the film). Fanny is his muse at this point and most of what he writes is about her. He’s also becoming very ill with tuberculosis and shortly after this scene, you realize (if you don’t know your history very well), that this love story is going to have a tragic ending.
Keats’s friends get enough money together to send him to Italy because he won’t last another winter in England with his illness. The Brawnes throw him a beautiful little goodbye party, then Fanny and he have a moment alone together. This is where the whole subtle conversation about sex happens. When he says essentially he loves her too much to take from her something so precious (think of the times; if they did she would be a fallen woman and probably ruined financially forever). After the rebuke, they lay together and imagine what their life could be like when he comes back from Italy and they are married. It’s a bittersweet scene because you know this is what they want so dearly and they would be so happy together, but the reality of his illness looms above their dreams, creating a cloud that they cannot imagine around. If you aren’t already crying at this point, I don’t think I want to know you.
HISTORY SPOILER. John Keats died in Italy and Brown brings word of it to the Brawnes. Fanny reacts so severely and so physically she cannot even breathe. Cornish really should have received an Oscar nomination for this performance, and she should have won for this scene alone. It’s so painful to watch. There’s so much love and loss, and the emotions are so raw. I’m tearing up just thinking about this scene.
The film ends with Brawne in morning – cutting off all her hair and donning all black – walking the moors where they used to walk reciting Bright Star – the poem Keats had written about her. Although not depicted in the film, in real life Brawne mourned the death of Keats for six years, then eventually married and had children. She kept his letters and one day before she died, she gave them to her children and told them they would be of value someday. I’m so glad she knew that, so we could enjoy this beautiful film and Campion could make such a heartfelt memorial to them and their love.