Sometimes, in choosing candidates for Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel decides to just give all of us a present. And so it was this week, with the selection of Jane Campion’s 2009 feature Bright Star (her last film, which reminds me that I still need to catch up with Top of the Lake). Do you know what the best shot is in Bright Star? Trick question, it’s all of them. This is one of the loveliest movies of the 2000s, the film where we all got our first good look at this awesome new cinematographer Greig Fraser, and marvel at Campion’s flawless ability to translate the textures of poetry into images. For the film is about a love affair with a poet; it is Fanny Brawne’s (Abbie Cornish) movie, but the title and the artistic sensibility are John Keats’s (Ben Whishaw), legendary poet and dead young person.
Bright Star is, to me, a film about four things: romance, Romanticism, being outside, and costuming. The last of these provided by Campion’s longtime secret weapon, Janet Patterson, who manages the nifty twofer of easily evoking the first half the 19th Century in its prim, buttoned-up elegance, while using the colors and lines and shape of the costumes to editorialise about the characters in a way that almost turns the film into an abstract visual essay on how imagery evokes an emotional response.
So the goal then became to pick just one image that would cover all four of those bases, and here’s the thing: that wasn’t even slightly hard. I had a dozen candidates. So I split the difference and threw “awesome compositional strategies” on the pile because why not, I dig Fraser and I want him to do more things. So with that cutting my list down by a couple, I finally settled on this one:
Being outside is obvious, and it brings Romanticism along with it: here we are, in the world of plants and nature, where everything is more correct and right and true than it is in houses. The characters are surrounded and protected by the trees overhead, given a private world that reflects their mood. Romance is almost as obvious: the way that Fanny and John are sneaking a little kiss, quiet unconcerned about anything, the way that people desperately and goofily in love will. And that’s only underscored by the composition, which puts them in the crispest focus of anything in the shot: they are the center of each other’s worlds, the only thing worth paying attention to. And yet they’re stranded in the deepest part of an extremely deep image, almost invisible through all the busy lines and colors, even though the lines all draw our eyes to them, and the focus does the same. For even if they are at the fixed center of each other’s lives, they are stealing a private moment, and we have no right to go barging in and getting in their way.
And as for costuming: no, this is not a shot that anybody would pick because it first foregrounds what they’re wearing. And yet, what they’re wearing is perfect, and very nearly the star of the image. Fanny is in pink and white, the colors of the flowering trees all around; Keats, in his black clothes, is dark as the tree trunks that are the only other objects in the frame that don’t erupt with color. By my count, at least three things are going on here, in ascending order of complexity and, if we want to be fair, critical bullshittery:
1) Their clothes color-code them as belonging in this natural space
2) Their clothes specifically code them as two parts of a single object; neither one of them is a complete tree alone, but together they are.
3) Keats is equated with the part of the tree that supports the rest, lofting the blossoms/Fanny up to the sky where they can be more fully appreciated in all their beauty and splendor. And that’s exactly what romantic odes do: they provide the subject of the ode with a kind of artistic importance and immortality – they are a means of holding the subject up and saying “here, please, observe this world, and love it the way I do”. The story might be Fanny’s, but the famous person is John Keats, and we know her well enough to care about her because he wrote the words of praise towards her that showed her off to the world.
Like I said, bullshittery. But I like to think that the utterly splendid images of Bright Star, and the glorious romantic film communicated through those images can withstand being gnawed at a bit too enthusiastically. Some gorgeous films are merely gorgeous, and that’s good enough; but some gorgeous films use their beauty in complex and probing ways, and that is what makes them great cinema. The least we can say about Bright Star is that it’s great cinema.
Incidentally, this 2009 release has never come out on Blu-ray, because who needs high definition for one of the prettiest movies of its decade?