Friday, September 18, 2009
I went last night to the opening of Poets House's new home on River Terrace in Battery Park City. It is a beautiful space, with a great view, dedicated to poetry. Afterwards, we all marched over to the cinplex to see Jane Campion's "Bright Star," the story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne's relationship, starring Ben Whishaw as Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny. It is a remarkable film. As a longtime Campion fan, I had high expectations, and the film lived up to them. Whishaw played Sebastian in the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited, in which he did a capable job. He seems much more suited to the role of the Romantic poet — impetuousness and flashes of humor allowing him to enliven the affecting seriousness of Keats's view of poetry. The movie hinges on the performance of Cornish as Fanny, and it is she who, by her performance, creates love in the film, by her impatience with the boorishness of Keats' friend, Charles Armitage Brown, as portrayed in the film by Paul Schneider, and her receptivity to poetry, even having had no previous experience of it. There is substantial recitation of poetry in the film, unlike in some of films of poets, which seem content to "tell the story," not realizing the story is completely contained in the poetry. Even the way in which the poetry is recited is effective, in judiciously chosen fragments, the way ideas are actually exchanged. Whishaw does an excellent job with the poetry, his pauses at the caesuras lingering just a millisecond longer than one would find comfortable, adding a vocal pain to that encompassed in the words.
You know the end of the story, of course, and you know, too, that the film will end with a complete recitation of "Bright Star," the sonnet Keats wrote for Brawne in 1819. I wish that had been handled differently. Cornish, in tears, having learned of Keats' death in Rome, walks to a spot they had shared, reciting the poem, but her disturbed state detracts from her ability to do the complicated poem justice. How much truer to Keats' beliefs it would have been to hear Whishaw reciting the poem from afar, from eternity now, while Cornish, whose performance ably handles a range of emotions, would have been freed to act her grief, without the extra burden of recitation. I recall the excellent recitation of Auden's "Funeral Blues" by John Hannah in Four Weddings and a Funeral. That was given under stress, but not while walking.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in long splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.