Review Date: 11-21-09
Release Date: 9-18-09 (U.S., limited)
Runtime: 119 min.
Costume Designer: Janet Patterson
Okay, I said I wasn’t going to write about “Oscar Bait” movies, but I need to write about this one. I am fairly certain that even with its healthy per-screen average (opening weekend approximately $10K per screen), this film isn’t being seen. Just to give you the brief snapshot: It’s about John Keats, the poet. It’s set in England in 1818, and it’s directed by Jane Campion. Come on.
Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is a teenaged fashionista at the height of the British Regency period. A great deal of time is spent explaining how she designs and sews her own ensembles, and how they set her apart from the rest of the hoi polloi.
She meets John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and slowly they begin a romance. Keats, being a poet, is destitute and not a suitable marriage prospect. Since Fanny is quite attractive, the societal mores of the time dictate that she should hold out for a suitor who can take care of her (and her family).
Trouble ensues in the form of Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), Keats’ close friend, benefactor and writing cohort, who takes a shine to Fanny. Not long on manners or humility, she snubs him. He takes out his frustration (sexual and otherwise) on the new maid, Abby.
Keats becomes sick with consumption (now known as tuberculosis), and is not doing well in the cold, damp English climate. His artist friends pool their money to send him to Italy, where, theoretically anyway, he would be in a better situation with regard to his health.
Due to the custom of the time, Fanny is unable to accompany Keats to Italy. She is not married to him, and it would be unseemly. Brown is unable to travel with Keats, as he is heavily in debt and has just had a child with Abby the maid. Keats makes the long trip alone, and his condition deteriorates rapidly. Three months after arriving in Italy, Keats loses his battle with TB at the age of twenty-five.
I thought this movie was very interesting, but I also thought it had flaws. I won’t get into criticisms about it because this is a forum for all things fantastic, and I’ll tell you what was fantastic: the costumes.
If you are a stickler for period authenticity, this movie will frustrate you. It’s not that the film is inauthentic by any means, it’s just that there are some design choices meant to enhance to story that could be perceived as slightly anachronistic or over-the-top.
It bears mention that Janet Patterson designed not only the costumes but also the sets and scenic elements. Patterson is a longtime Jane Campion collaborator, having done design double-duty on The Portrait of a Lady, and costume design on The Piano. She has been nominated for three costume design Oscars, and she won the BAFTA for The Piano. She’s good, people.
Her work here is VERY interesting. Since Fanny is a fashionista, Patterson has imbued her costume choices with a little bit of wackiness. Fanny is, after all, a teenager. She is trying to make sense of the world and express herself. Her eccentricity in costume speaks to her soul and to her state of mind.
Fanny transitions from fabulous and fantastic with lots of color (in the beginning) to bereft and monochromatic (in the end). After the first act, Fanny’s ensembles are toned down, way down, into much more conventional Regency looks. By the end, she is immersed in her grief, wearing widows weeds.
If you watch a lot of movies, and if you are into Jane Austen, you have seen a LOT of Regency costumes on film. You just haven’t seen them look like THIS before. I was taken aback by some of the fabric choices and the colors, but as I sat with it in the theater, it started to make a lot of sense. The goal of this film is not to make a museum piece; the goal is to tell the story. The costumes in Bright Star do exactly that. One must let go of the anal-retentive/OCD need to have things look exactly period accurate.
Not that I am referring to myself, mind you.
Keats is costumed in clothing suitable to his situation – he appears pale, frail, and sickly throughout the film. His pants droop from his frame. His jackets and waistcoats are worn thin. His hat has seen better days. His colors are blues into blacks. He is lovable, humble, disheveled, wan, and rail thin. The costume tells us who he is.
Brown, on the other hand, is robust, paunchy and attitudinal. Self-important and argumentative, he wears a strikingly bold plaid suit with a brown jacket. The plaid is in an earth tone, for sure, but it is a daring choice. The plaid pattern mirrors his braggadocio and cockiness. His silhouette is 180 degrees from Keats’, pushing their divide visually and helping to inform the story.
There are some beautiful, breathtaking moments in this film. Visually, this film is a poem in itself. There are moments worth freezing in your memory like this one, where we see Fanny and her siblings in a field of bluebells. The love Fanny feels in that moment is so strong and the scene, the nature is so beautiful; it needs no words.
Likewise, the scene in which Fanny truly appreciates that she is in love. She sits on her bed and a large linen curtain blows toward her, the undulating movement of the curtain symbolizing the ephemeral quality, the mystery, and the power of love.
Fanny’s teenaged love is obsessive, all-or-nothing, and she swings radically from ecstatic in love’s embrace to despondent in love’s absence. In her first blush of love, Fanny wears a bright pink Spencer jacket; the saturated color emphasizes the freshness and profundity of her feeling.
As the film progresses, she loses color slowly, as in this white gown, reading a letter from Keats. And of course, in the end, she chops her hair and dons the mourning habit.
If you can get to a theater to see this film, please do. It is visually stirring and the costumes are faboo. I saw it screened digitally (in a theater on a great big screen), but I know there are celluloid prints out there circulating. I would have preferred to see a proper print, but the theater was nice and I was lucky to have seen it in the first place. So go forth and find it. Just don’t forget the tissue.