Ok, I admit it, I’m one of those former English Majors who fell in love, not just with the great literature I studied, but with the whole identity of being a student studying great literature. My Alma Mater, Rutgers University, was an unwitting accomplice, with its wonderfully cliché historic buildings, some of which were well over 200 years old, some of which were adorned with, yes, ivy, and one of which housed the English Department, where at least one faculty member could recite Chaucer in her sleep, in the original Middle English.
Anyway, it is with no embarrassment at all that I recall those mind-opening days in the late 1980s, walking around campus carrying my Shakespeare, Forster, Hemingway, Salinger, and Kerouac, in my backpack and romantic literati fantasies in my head. Having grown up in a mostly artificial New Jersey suburb, this was nothing less than a time of liberation for me.
And so, as cliché as it might seem to some, I treasure that time and the gifts I received from all those great writers and artists, and the sense of community I felt with my professors and classmates as we luxuriated in those gifts.
Enter John Keats, and Jane Campion’s latest film Bright Star, which is as unapologetically romantic as I am. The film manages to cover nearly every quintessential British period piece love story element without feeling derivative, and yet, somehow, seeming not to care if it is interpreted otherwise.
Campion dishes up luscious servings of:
- period clothing we can’t fathom wearing today
- idyllic pastoral settings with almost unbearably charming houses
- the contrast of highly educated and cultured people living in the countryside, passing their time making their own music, reading literature, learning dance and attending balls, swooning over their natural surrounds, etc.
- a lush soundtrack with at least one sublimely pretty piece of classical music, in this case the adagio from Mozart’s Gran Partita
- a daughter expected to marry into money, but who falls in love with a man who is beneath her station
- the man beneath her station is an artist tormented by his poverty; his passion to create; a terminal illness, addiction, or mental disorder, in this case the former
- a housemaid impregnated by an upperclassman
I love the lack of, besides the impregnation of the housemaid, sordidness in this movie, a sordidness that seems requisite in most modern romances, as if every love affair has to be twisted in some way, neurotic, or even psychotic. Rather, we see the deep wells of passion boil over the sexual repression ever so slightly, and the most intense display of feeling is perhaps the most appropriate, that of Fanny’s grieving at the news of Keats’ death.
The cast is great across the board, the script and direction from Campion flawless, the pace meditative rather than lethargic, and, of course, healthy doses of Keats’ gorgeous poetry.
I can’t recommend it enough.