Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Bright Star, A Review

Or, as I think about it, "Bright Star: It's not you, it's me."

I wanted to love this. Everybody else seems to--just check out its 83% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or Dana Stevens' video review over on Slate. Or the disappointment that it didn't get more attention from the Oscars, only a "kiss your sister" nomination for costume design.

But, I just didn't love it.

I will take full responsibility for that--it's clearly my problem, not the movie's. I just don't thrill to poetry. It's some faulty wiring in my English major literary obsessive-compulsive make-up, I think. So when Abby Cornish and Ben Whishaw trade lines of Keats, I get bored. There are plenty of reviewers who find that scene to be "sexy as hell." I keep thinking that I'm damn glad I didn't live back then, because I'm finding on-line solitaire to be more engaging that this movie.

The plot, for those of you who aren't already enormous Keats fans, is pretty simple. In 1818 or so, John Keats shares rooms with another poet in the village of Hampstead; then it was a rural village, now it has been swallowed by London and is a station on the Northern Line. He meets the 18 year old Frances "Fanny" Brawne, they fall in love, he writes poems, gets tuberculosis and dies, The End. The movie covers a period of about a year, from their first meeting to Keats' death in Rome.

So, Fanny Brawne is a seamstress, who is voluably vain about her stitching skills.

The only triple-pleated mushroom collar in two counties.

When we first see her, she is wearing some ridiculous get-up yellow and red, that stands out like a McDonald's billboard in the earth tones of her village surroundings. Admittedly, I have a problem with the fashions of the era, since the men's trousers reach up to their nipples and tend to look like they are designed to create permanent wedgies, while women's gowns look like pleated maternity sacks, topped with extreme bolero jacket/shrugs. Both genders are also be-hatted with the most exaggerated of millinery.

The Carrie Bradshaw of 1819

So Fanny, being passionate about fashion, manages to make these silly looks even sillier. Abby Cornish manages to wear these monstrosities with a straight face, so good for her. But really, after seeing her in the perfectly silly get-up of the opening scenes, I found it hard to take her the least bit seriously.

Ben Whishaw plays John Keats with a pathetic excuse for a moustache and a bit of a Beatles mop: his straggling facial hair makes Orlando Bloom look positively hirsute.

Leading men who don't yet shave.

So, I'm failing to clasp this movie to my bosom and declare us "Best Friends Forevah!" My bad.

Keats shares rooms with a Scottish poet named Charles Brown, and Brown and Fanny don't get along well at all. In fact, in a modern movie, their snappy dialogue would totally mark them as the fated lovers. They certainly have similar sartorial styles; Brown insists on wearing tight plaid pants and waistcoats, with a vulgar pattern that would make even Pat Field look away. Alas, it soon turns out that the war of wit between Fanny and Brown is the indication that they truly do not like each other. But Keats loves them both, and they both love Keats, which makes them mortal enemies.

I'm a real man, with a real beard. Sadly, you can't see the sartorial splendor of my tartan pants. I guess the Scotch don't have decent dress sense.

The movie is beautiful, with lovely visuals of Keats lying on the top branches of an apple tree in bloom, or Fanny reading a letter in a field of bluebells.

John Keats, seeking a nightingale nest on a dare.

Fanny Brawne, in a rare moment of paying attention to her sister.

Everyone is against the two of them coming together: Brown fears that Keats will be too distracted to write poetry, and Fanny's family aware that Keats is too poor to marry. But like the willful and Romantic souls they are, they hold hands, and sneak away to kiss in the grass.

Did non-engaged couples in the early 1800s snog this much? They never do in Austen novels. Fanny fails to endear herself to me as a character as she drags her younger brother and sister around Hampstead to places they are not supposed to be, just so Fanny can spend time with Keats. She even takes them to the rooms where Keats' younger brother is dying of tuberculosis. Her little sister asks to leave because "it smells bad." All I could think was that Fanny shouldn't be exposing her siblings to potentially fatal illnesses, and it would all end badly if little "Toots" Brawne died of TB as well.

Poor Toots Brawne: all this time passes and she never gets any bigger. Poor nutrition, I guess, and being generally neglected.

Later, when Keats and Brown go off for the summer to write, Fanny is short-tempered and nasty to her little sister, and ends up spending days in bed when Keats' letters don't come often enough for her. When she receives only a short letter from him, Fanny sends poor little Toots to the kitchen. "Fanny sent me to ask for a knife." "What does she want a knife for?" "To kill herself."

Yes, that's right, teenagers never change, do they. No, even back in the reign of George III, they were self-centered drama queens, mooning over a boy.

When Keats starts to cough, a room full of friends we have never seen before gather and convince him he needs to travel to a warmer climate and they will pay his passage. Fanny doesn't want him to go, but he says he has no choice, what with the passage already paid for. This is where a Regency self-help book would have been useful.

So he goes, and he never comes back, because he dies in February, and Fanny cries when she finds out, and she never takes off the ring he gave her, even though she lives for many years afterwards and marries and has children of her own.

For some reason, it never drew me in. Sure, I say that I have a cold, dead heart, but I cry at movies and books all the damn time. I cried my way through the "Twilight" books, even while deploring the bad writing and the hokey set-up. I cried through "Shakespeare in Love," even though I knew it was all fake. But I just didn't believe that the mouthy, vain, mean and fashion-obsessed Fanny was really truly in love with John Keats, so much as he was her first crush. And what was there about Fanny that Keats really loved? Sure, she looked great reading letters in a bluebell field, and she let him kiss her all the time; but what was there about their characters that made them a match? They lived in two halves of a small house, they were both the right age--and that was about it.

So, I'm dying to have somebody explain to me why this is a great movie, and how I can look at it so that I love it as much as everybody else does. I'd like to like this movie better than I do. As it is, though, I just don't.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for not asking me to see this movie with you.

- your husband (really)