Friday 20 November 2009

Breathless

Bright Star, written and directed by Jane Campion (2009)

It is true, as some have pointed out, that Jane Campion’s new film about the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne lacks some important social context. The story told in Bright Star appears cut off from events in the wider world, such as for example Manchester’s Peterloo massacre in 1819, the year Keats wrote ‘Ode To Autumn’.

The film gives us something different and worth reflecting on, however. It provides a vantage point from which to view another aspect of the social world of the time – the fact that public life took precedence over private emotion. Depressingly, we witness the moral straightjacket of the early 19th century. The oppressive social conventions of the time mean Brawne cannot travel away with her great friend and true love, and must abandon him to his death without her. Keats’ last letters are almost unbearable to read, such is his state of despair and longing to be with Brawne. Brawne (played by Abbie Cornish), is desperate as she know Keats (Ben Whishaw) is to leave, and so she offers herself to him. He declines, as he regards maintaining his public respectability to be more important. In his final letters he seems to have profound regret.

Another advantage of the film’s single-minded focus on the unfolding relationship between Keats and Brawne over a number of years is that we come to appreciate more fully the feeling of not being able to breathe, figuratively and literally, associated with that period of history. The film shows us the fleeting glances, brief touching of hands and ludicrous attempts at intimacy through bedroom walls to illustrate deference to rules of conduct and manners.

But the film doesn’t read history backwards, mixing up how people might react today to what might be perceived to be similar experiences of repressed feeling. For example, there is no assumption made in the film that the experiences of the characters pile up, inevitably resulting in breakdown and collapse. The film shows us Fanny’s internal strength when she keeps her promise to Keats and, without looking back, walks away from the train he’s on that takes him away from her for good. There is also an arresting moment in the film when Brawne collapses in stricken grief on learning of Keats death. This moment is filmed alongside the reactions of her family who were also very fond of Keats. The camera shows us how they seem slightly embarrassed or taken aback by Brawne’s display of grief; suggesting her reaction was not considered normal. One might have assumed that on Brawne’s reaction, the family would have rallied around her and given in to their own feelings held in check. Instead they remained aloof - her mother only going to her after some time. This suggests the romantics largely at odds with the norms of the day.

The film provides us with an opportunity to consider where poetry might sit amid this complex mix of public conduct and private emotion. Whilst some romantic poetry does focus on the intensely private, it is written for public consumption. With the film moving between letters and poems, we begin to appreciate the difference. The poetry of private emotion is given a universal aspect through references to the classics, religion and nature, and is therefore very much part of a humanist tradition where our common humanity becomes evident. The despair of Keats is not in his poetry but in his letters, written privately between himself and his intimate friends.

The poetry of Keats is informed by personal experience but expressed in shared universal language, embodying a positive distinction between public and private. His letters, on the other hand, indicate the profound tensions that existed simultaneously for the individual.

The film is imbued with a dead weight, not just because you know it isn’t going to have a happy ending, but because social codes force the characters to act in ways they feel are morally wrong. So it is true that the film doesn’t give us, as some would like, a working class on the move, or any sense of the social instability of the times, which might help us understand some of the subtleties of Keats’ poetry. Instead, however, we are provided some time and space to consider the question of the split between the public and private. Inevitably the film provokes some reflection on today and what has been gained or lost in the blurring of the sharp distinction that previously existed. As many find this blurring of the distinction today very confusing, I welcome the some of the insights the film brings. Today it appears as if both public and private are either held in disregard or trivialised.


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Resources

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

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National Media Museum
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