Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Bright Star" (2009)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

When I first wrote about Bright Star nearly five years ago, I spent most of my (very brief) review praising director/writer Jane Campion for her masterful work on the film's visual splendor. Those feelings haven't changed in the interim; if anything, I'm even more impressed by those visuals on this recent viewing. Here is a film that pulls off the nigh-impossible trick of being beautiful to look at without that beauty ever calling attention to itself; it doesn't cry "look at these pretty pictures!" but you can't help but gawk anyway. Several others have already commented on how difficult it would be to pull a single shot to name as "best" from this film, and indeed, it's a tough one.

The film stars Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne, best remembered by history as the lover and muse of Romantic English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw). Brawne is almost instantly infatuated with Keats, purchasing his latest, poor-selling poetry collection, only to find it lacking. Keats, too, is taken by Brawne, a crafty woman who fashions her own outfits with homemade materials. However, Keats' best friend, Charlie (Paul Schneider), isn't quite as impressed by Fanny, and is convinced that she has ulterior motives. The couple's romance, of course, is doomed; Keats died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis.

Now, since it would be unseemly to just post every frame of the film in this space, let's take a look at one of Campion's more interesting visual motifs: the equation of Fanny with Keats.

More after the jump.

Over the course of her career, Campion has rightfully earned a reputation as a fiercely feminist filmmaker. However, what's remarkable about her work is how her themes are almost always in the subtext, rarely ever surfacing into text itself (one of the reasons her 2013 miniseries Top of the Lake didn't work for me was because subtext became text a bit too often). In Bright Star, Fanny is characterized as being a woman who, despite it being the 19th century, has her own agency. There's never much talk about the social conventions of the time, and Campion frames the story so that Fanny is the one who is controlling the narrative. She's also the one controlling her interactions with Keats; in each of their early conversations, she's the one leading. Think of how many films set in the same time period - even those with female protagonists - have the female character imbued with this much agency.

Similarly, Campion consistently frames Fanny and Keats so that they are approximately equal within the frame. Notice how in the above shot, in an early scene where Fanny and Keats discuss his latest poetry collection at a party, that neither party is positioned to be "above" or more "dominant" than the other; the implication here is that this is a conversation among equals, with their reflections in the mirror behind them only reinforcing this notion. And it's something that's mirrored many times throughout the film, as in an early conversation in the woods:

And a later confrontation in roughly the same area:

In both cases, the staging and framing is essentially the same. Keats is facing toward the camera and Fanny is facing away, but in both cases the framing doesn't indicate that one party has the upper hand over the other. Their relationship is one of equals, even if Keats is the one who's celebrated today in English classes while Fanny is largely forgotten.

There are other clever instances of Fanny and Keats mirroring each other as well, such as when they play an amusing game of freezing in place whenever Fanny's little sister Toots (Edie Martin) turns around to look at them:

Or in these gorgeous matching shots of the two laying down (separately) after their first kiss, which cemented their relationship:

Yet when it comes to picking a "best shot," I have to go with one of just Fanny alone in the frame, at least in the literal sense.

*Best Shot*

What's great about this frame is how it establishes Keats' presence without actually having him in the room. Fanny is reading one of his letters when her mother (Kerry Fox) comes in. Fanny and Toots have released the butterflies that they captured earlier, and Fanny defends her affections for Keats. The butterflies, at first, seem indicative of the fascination with nature that defines Keats' poetry, a little reminder of his work and allowing the butterflies to stand in for him. It's even more effective that the butterflies have blue wings, in a much similar shade to that of Keats' omnipresent jacket. This is still early in the relationship, when he is the only thing on her mind. It's a remarkably composed shot, made all the more effective by the soft blues and established relationship.

Knowing that Keats would not be long for this world makes a later shot even more effective. As Fanny laments him returning to London without visiting her, her mother sweeps the floor, which is littered with dead butterflies:

Yet thanks to Campion's masterful direction, the relationship lingers long after the credits role. She presented them as equals, and thus they leave equal impact.

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