Thursday, May. 14, 2009

Bright Star: Jane Campion's Take on Keats

With the gorgeous weather and people, the fine food and wines, the sand and the sea, who could come to the Riviera and not fall in love — mad love? At least on screen. Today the Cannes Film Festival offered two tales of l'amour fou, the passion that embraces life in the extreme, and which may lead to death and outlast it. One of the films, Jane Campion's Bright Star, suffers from being too sensible and decorous on the subject. The other, Park Chan-wook's Thirst, scores by burrowing into its characters' lunacy and soaring with them, to Hell.

Bright Star, which the Australian writer-director based on Andrew Morton's biography of John Keats, concentrates on the love affair the poet (Ben Whishaw) had with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). For the film's 2-hour duration, Keats is battered by illness, poverty, separation from his darling, a very possessive male friend (Paul Schneider as the obnoxious Charles Brown) and the disease of propriety that forbids a penniless poet to marry a country lady. He endures all these with a strange equanimity, as if they were steps toward martyrdom or fulfillment. "Do you not see," he wrote, "how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?" (See the top 10 Cannes Film Festival movies of all time.)

The pains and troubles of Bright Star went into its clever surfaces; the film is a triumph of art direction and costumery. But a thing of prettiness is not a thing of beauty. For that you need passion, and this movie has a lower level of emotional urgency than most Masterpiece Theatre literary adaptations. Nor can the John-and-Fanny tryst touch the truly convulsive affair Campion concocted in her 1993 Palme d'Or co-winner, The Piano. (Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel were the amorous combatants there.) This one is love under glass, or in a museum, or as told by a prim schoolmarm. Intensity is lacking in the narrative, the direction, certainly the performances.

Whishaw has been anointed the next great British actor from his Hamlet, at 21, in 2004. "Go and see Trevor Nunn's Hamlet," one London critic wrote. "In 40 years' time you will be able to tell the grandchildren that you saw Ben Whishaw's first great role." But the promise hasn't been realized. Keats should be a foolproof role for displaying consumptive star quality, yet Whishaw can't seize center-screen; he seems to disappear, to force one's attention elsewhere. That would be to Cornish, the Australian actress whose showiest role till now was as Heath Ledger's lover and fellow heroin addict in the 2006 drama Candy. But it's no good looking there. She carries herself with little of the period's grace, gravity and purpose. Her size overwhelms Whishaw's, and her declamation of the Keats poetry is so artless it may make you wonder why his work was required reading in English class.

See pictures of the Cannes 2009 Red Carpet.

See pictures of movie costumes.