Bright Star (Campion, 2009)

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Atoning for a past of artful but turgid films choking on their own bloated sense of importance, director Jane Campion delivered her finest work to date with Bright Star (2009). This intense, impassioned study of the unconsummated, ill-fated love affair of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, works its magic like an ode to the art of poetry and our own love of the English language. Working from only sketchy biographical details, including many of Keats’ letters to Fanny, Campion convincingly transports us back to early 19th century England.

Keats (Ben Whishaw) is an impoverished poet whose publication has yet to translate into financial prosperity. Daily he engages in writing sessions with best friend and fellow poet Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), but a neighbour, the inquisitive Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) soon has him interested in something other than literary pursuits. As a young man mired in poverty, however, he has to fight an instinct within begging him to stay away from Fanny, for his inability to provide for any woman is like a constant lance in his side.

As a kind of love triangle, interesting dynamics emerge from Campion’s gloriously literate screenplay, incorporating a liberal smattering of Keats’ poetry. The gently derisive jabs at Fanny from Brown may be construed as playful, but behind them is real venom. From one angle it may seem that he’s only being protective of Keats and the integrity of the creative process, for it’s a privilege to share ideas with a young man he regards as a gift to the artform. But slowly emerging are deeper feelings that are equally responsible for his barely-veiled petulance as Fanny’s presence begins to inspire a more noticeable and undesirable effect on Keats and his frame of mind.

It’s the underlying complexities of these relationships that enhance the film’s painstakingly-crafted aesthetic beauty and some of its subtle recurrent themes: of creation unhindered by love and its diverse definitions; of a finite existence embraced for the preciousness of every moment.

Despite the exceptional work of Whishaw, so horribly miscast in Perfume (2006), and Cornish who convey a realistic chemical reaction, it’s Schneider who steals the show with an electric performance as the caustic, discontented Brown. Unapologetically condescending, he seems constantly wired, his impregnation of a naïve housemaid coming across as sadly misdirected, a kind of sordid compensation for what he really desires.

Campion has always displayed an innate musical sense at least, her past collaborations producing exceptional work from Wojciech Kilar (1996’s Portrait of a Lady) and Michael Nyman (1993’s The Piano). Her choice of composer here was newcomer Mark Bradshaw whose sparingly used music is saved for maximum impact in perhaps six or seven scenes. It works brilliantly in every one and leaves you wanting more.

I’ve struggled to love this director’s past work, especially the provocative, sleazy In the Cut (2003) and the abomination that is Holy Smoke (1999) – despite, it must be said, an incredibly brave Kate Winslet performance. But her latest film is a real tonic, providing unexpected redemption and wiping away the stain of those past ‘misdemeanors’. Bold, romantic, and genuinely moving as it counts down to its inevitable conclusion, Bright Star glitters with every potent word, every helpless silent gesture, to create something of intoxicating beauty.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Mankiewicz, 1947)

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A sparkling combination of drama, fantasy and comedy, this archetypal Hollywood concoction from 1947 is one truly deserving of its decorated status. Arguably the finest achievement of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s stellar career, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir features the faultless casting of Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir, the lonely widower who becomes enamoured of Rex Harrison’s ghostly sea captain, Daniel Gregg. Together they bring to vivid life the classy screenplay adaptation of R.A. Dick’s novel by Philip Dunne.

Lucy is looking for a new start one year after the death of her husband; desperate to separate herself from her in-laws she decides to give in to a lifelong calling of the seaside. She chooses Whitecliff and won’t be deterred by a jittery real estate agent from taking up residence in the supposedly haunted Gull Cottage.

Rather than fearing the prospect, Lucy is intrigued by its supernatural reputation; even disregarding the first booming cackle which marks the salty Captain’s initial appearance, she decides to move in, bringing her young daughter Anna (played by a 9-year old Natalie Wood) and housekeeper Martha (Edna Best) with her.

There’s friction at first between Lucy and Captain Gregg; she’s upset by his brusque, confrontational manner, whilst he’s still peeved by his accidental demise, widely reported in the community as a suicide. The pair begins to see eye-to-eye after a while however and their fascinating conversations take on greater significance as they discover common ground, mutual respect and even a strange cross-dimensional attraction of sorts.

Soon Gregg has a brainstorm and enlists her help to bring his ultimate project to fruition: he wants to dictate his colourful memoirs to Lucy, who he affectionately dubs ‘Lucia’, recollections of a spirited life spent roaming the high seas, which she will present to a publisher upon completion, taking full credit for.

The third piece of the equation is completed when, at the publisher’s office, Lucy runs into children’s author, the suave and charming Miles Fairley (George Sanders) who’s immediately besotted by Lucy and begins to court her. This inspires the angry protestations of the jealous Captain who does all he can to dissuade her from falling for the wily manipulations of a man he labels “a perfumed parlour snake!” Of course, Gregg denies any notion of jealousy, noting that it’s securely a “disease of the flesh.”

Torn between the corporeal and spiritual realms in what is one very strange love triangle, Lucy must decide where her future lays, a decision that seems surprisingly difficult given the paucity of realistic options. Mankiewicz’s almost flawless film survives the transition of years as the finale is reached, the ethereal fantasy of the final frames leaving an indelible imprint.

The gorgeous Tierney, a great but undervalued actress of her time (consider her equally unforgettable turns in both Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945) for starters) displays that perfect mix of strength and vulnerability here; Lucy is an intelligent but vulnerable character, thus craving our empathy, especially when she becomes a victim of heartless deceitfulness.

This is probably my favourite Rex Harrison role; he’s unforgettable as Gregg, the indignant but decent Captain whose roughened voice and proclivity for colourful turns of phrase belies the romanticism stirring his own lonely heart. He has nearly all the best lines too, but the best is saved for his penultimate appearance, a stirring farewell monologue to the uneasily sleeping Lucy – an acknowledgement of how the only means of providing her with a chance at a real and rewarding life is to vanish forever and cease his relentless haunting.

Two further monumental creative forces cinch the film’s greatness: composer Bernard Herrmann whose glorious score combines glittering embellishments of his main thematic material with hypnotic mysterioso writing for the early scenes prior to Gregg’s substantiation; his love theme is a pearler and atypical for him in a career steeped in the psychological probing, through bleak atonalities, of tortured characters.

Then there’s the exemplary work of cinematographer Charles Lang, one of great artisans of his chosen field. Anyone who’s witnessed the magic he conjured with light and shade in films such as The Uninvited (1944), and his work for Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole (1951), Sabrina (1954), and Some Like it Hot (1959), will know what to expect here. He often uses an eerie confluence of artificial and candlelight to convey mood and tension and a series of meticulously crafted interiors to compliment stunning backdrops of the seaside, often evocatively shown at night.

This magnificent film with its intelligent, literate screenplay, full of whimsy and witty humour, is a delight from first frame to last. An artistic highpoint for all concerned it hasn’t aged in any significant way, remaining a timeless fantasy, the perfect cinematic encapsulation of idealized love.

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