Film: A Thing of Beauty

Edie Martin as Toots Brawne and Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne in Jane Campion's Bright StarSubscribers - please click through for best viewing!

After much anticipation I am so happy to have seen Jane Campion's new film Bright Star. More than the beautiful story told, I love that the look of the film conveys so much more than the dialogue or action. It is as though Jane Campion has gone back in time to re-create the original inspirations for John Keats' poetry, creating a sublimely simple and beautiful design. Romantic, of course, but perfectly atmospheric for the late Regency period. Set near Hampstead Heath (just outside of London at that time,) the exteriors are rich with seasons, colors, and all manner of flora.

Fanny's room in Bright Star

Meanwhile, the interiors are cleverly set to show changing spaces. Fanny's spaces are airy and bright, with white-washed woods and crisp linens. Keat's spaces are dark and wooden with tufted leather sofas and dark wood tables. Family spaces are a mix of both, creating a cozy, loving space the perfectly suits this interesting family. The house is simple, a middle-class dwelling without much ornament or pomp. It is clear that the cook and the maid are part of the family circle, while friends and neighbors are familiar confidantes.

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanchéd linen, smooth and lavendered,
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferred
From Fez; and spicéd dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedared Lebanon.
These delicacies he heaped with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathéd silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retiréd quiet of the night,
Filling the chilly room with perfume light. -
"And now, my love, my seraph fair, awake!
Thou art my heaven, and I thine eremite:
Open thine eyes, for meek St. Anges' sake,
Or I shall drowse beside thee, so my soul doth ache."

- from The Eve of St. Agnes, John Keats, 1819

Sammy (Thomas Sangster) Toots (Edie Martin) and Fanny (Abbie Cornish)

While certain details are known about Fanny Brawne and her family, I could find nothing in her history about why her family was in such a straightened financial condition, other than Mrs. Brawne had recently been widowed. In the film, it is clear that the Brawnes need to economise, but the children still speak French, go to beautiful parties, have pocket money for books and paper, and have dancing class from a private tutor. Mr. Keats, on the other hand, is clearly of a more impoverished class. While educated and presentable, he seems to be largely dependent upon friends for his room and board.

Fanny stitches her collar.Fanny's dress at the ballThis difference is also conveyed majestically in the costume design of the film. Fanny Brawne is derisively described by Keat's friend Charles Armitage Brown as "fashionably slavish", and there is much talk about Fanny's "stitching". Mr. Brown, and Keats at the beginning, both think that this stylish proclivity shows a shallowness of character in Fanny. She, however, takes great pride in her craft talking about her talent for design and style, and presenting herself as entirely confident in her avant-garde looks. The difference between her style and Keats' shabby dress are entirely evident, creating even more tension between them. When Fanny and Keats first meet she criticises his jacket, suggesting he needs one in blue velvet rather than his well-worn wool.

Fanny (Abbie Cornish) & Keats (Ben Whishaw)In every shot, Fanny's costumes set her apart from the group. She is more elegant, more daring, more colorful than anyone else, conveying her personality and good humor. As the relationship with Keats grows Fanny's style changes, starting with bright colors and elaborate hats and moving toward more somber tones and quiet embellishments. The other Brawne children are equally stylish, especially Fanny's younger brother Sammy. His lanky early teen frame is perfectly suited to his short jackets and tall straw hats, but his crowning glory is the jaunty silk cravate he wears in each scene.

Promenade Ensemble, 1822, from Ackermann'sThe fashion of the late Regency period is far more interesting than the early Regency. In this time (about 1816 - 1822), there is more pattern, silhouette, and color than the simple muslin frocks commonly associated with this time. The short Spencer jacket is still popular, but now there are long redingotes, and the hats are much more elaborate than the simple bonnet. To create such stylish designs herself, Fanny Brawne likely consulted ladies' magazines or the fashion plates from France. While early Regency gowns were straight and clean, this era shows more flounces at the hem, creating weight and dimension. The waistline was just beginning to creep downward from the empire line, but this still dominated the designs, as did the elegantly sloping shoulder. Just a few years later, sleeves and skirts would increase in volume, creating the perfect bell shape that would last through the 1860s. This film captures such an intriguing moment of fashion, from such a unique perspective: that of a Regency-era tastemaker, who was the most fashion forward member of her circle.

Abbie Cornish as Fanny BrawneAs Fanny and Keats' romance runs into difficulty, Fanny seems to take on the quiet tragedy of the poet. Like any teenager, she's given to moodyness, flights of fancy, and dramatic passions. One of the most beautiful scenes is when she and her siblings gather butterflies and then set them free in her bedroom. The colors, dainty insects, and gauzy atmosphere create a romantic image like none other.

As the film nears it's tragic end, the atmosphere grows crisp and cold, while Fanny's vivid pinks and rich browns give way to deep blue and finally black. The lush greens of spring and summer have given way to stark tree trunks, gray skies, and brown earth. The stunning warmth of the romance fades into memory, leaving the viewer wanting more of everything.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

     Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

     With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,

     And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

        To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

     With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

     For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.

- from To Autumn, John Keats, September 19, 1819

It is a credit to Campion to have so masterfully captured this time and place so perfectly in Bright Star. The many layers of visuals - cinematography, costumes, and sets - serve to tie the true story of the romance with the actual poetry that we have known and studied for generations. To unite all of these elements so seamlessly, so effortlessly, sets a new standard for any type of biographic film.