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Attachment Is Such A Difficult Thing To Undo

September 10th, 2010 · 4 Comments

The Bechdel Test was named for Allison Bechdel, whose comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For in 1985 measured the female presence in movies by employing three criteria: Are there two or more women in it, with names? Do the women talk to each other? About something other than a man? Far too many mainstream movies flunk this test, but in the month of September, I take a look at ten recent movies that pass.

Bright Star (2009)
Directed by Jane Campion
Written by Jane Campion
Produced by Jan Chapman, Caroline Hewitt
119 minutes

Bright Star failed to draw a big audience or win many awards, but proving that sometimes “lessness is bestness”, the PG-rated romance took the path of restraint. The result is an overpowering depiction of the power of words. Turning 50 and deciding it was time she stopped being intimidated by poetry, Jane Campion read Keats, Andrew Motion’s biography on John Keats. Campion was impacted by the poet’s unconsummated love for Fanny Brawne, who he confided feelings for largely through letters. Deciding that the best way to tell their story was from Fanny’s point of view, she wrote an original script based on Motion’s research. French conglomerate Pathé raised $8.5 million for Campion’s seventh feature film, which was shot on a nine week schedule north of London, with one day of exterior shooting in Rome.

Campion was learning about poetry and John Keats as she was preparing the movie and it’s this spark of discovery that sets Bright Star apart among costume pictures. This is a movie about dead people that feels alive. In addition to expressing what makes Keats’s poetry vital, Campion cast two actors in Abbie Cornish and Ben Whislaw who accomplish what stars would have been incapable of: surprise. Instead of camera movement, editing or music that announces itself, Bright Star holds on compositions (lit by fellow Australian Greig Fraser) as beautiful as any painting and gives the powerful story room to breathe. Once the names and places have been settled after one viewng, the visual splendor of the images, radiance of the dialogue and elation of the characters become more evident in repeated visits.

In the village of Hampstead, north of London in the autumn of 1818, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) pays a visit to Wentworth Place, a house divided into two halves, one of which is inhabited by a family close to Fanny’s widowed mother (Kerry Fox). Only 18 years old, Fanny sews and designs her own clothes and has become well known for her wit. Though she detests one of Wentworth’s residents, brash literary snob Charles Brown (Paul Schenider) Fanny becomes attracted to his friend John Keats (Ben Whislaw), a penniless 23-year-old poet who Brown supports. Keats cares for a sickly brother while his most recent work, the epic poem Endymion, has been published to dismal reviews and poor sales. Fanny sends her kid brother Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and sister Toots (Edie Martin) to buy a copy so she can see if Keats is an idiot or not.

Preferring novels to poetry, Fanny admits to Keats that she did not love Endymion, but was struck by the opening: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever; Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness”. Keats’ brother passes in the winter but by spring, the Brawnes take over the lease for half of Wentworth Place. Sharing meals and walks with Fanny, Keats completes The Eve of St Agnes, Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn. Aware of Keats’s love for Fanny, Brown warns his friend how his creativity will be sacrificed in support of a wife. When the men depart for a writing retreat on the Isle of Wright in the summer, Keats expresses his feelings for a lovesick Fanny in letters. Miserable over his finances, the poet keeps away from Wentworth Place, but Keats realizes that separation has not cooled his love for Fanny, but intensified it.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 3.410 users: 69% for Bright Star

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 81 for Bright Star

Read Quentin Tarantino’s handwritten note to Jane Campion at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival regarding Bright Star

Tags: Based on book · Coming of age · No opening credits · Small town · Unconventional romance

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Raquelle // Sep 10, 2010 at 6:37 am

    Just added this to my Netflix queue. I didn’t know how this one passed my notice. I used to be a die-hard period film fanatic and I’m still very much in love with Campion’s Portrait of a Lady, although I’m one of few out there who are. Thank you so much for this review.

  • 2 Dad // Sep 11, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Lessness is Bestness. I liked that comment and after watching the trailer was sorry I missed seeing this one. Director Jane Campion fits your
    Bechdel Test definition to a tee.

    Love – Dad

  • 3 kelsy // Sep 13, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    I enjoyed a lot about this movie, but it got a little tedious by the end–this coming from a girl who regularly sits and watches an entire 4-5 hour costume drama miniseries in one sitting. However, I liked how quietly this movie went about its business, and it was certainly lovely to look at.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Sep 14, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Raquelle: I’m not the demographic for the “girly” sub-genre of costume pictures which got going after Clueless. I’ve also ignored Keira Knightley, but based on your comment, I’m curious about Portrait of a Lady. Jane Campion paints on a different canvas from those other filmmakers. Thanks for commenting!

    Dad: I thought about it and I’m not 100% sure that Bright Star passes the Bechdel Test as most of the conversations in the script do seem to revolve around John Keats in one way or another. But I don’t care, there are a terrific number of actresses in the cast and it’s a such a wonderful movie. Thanks for commenting!

    Kelsy: Excellent comments from someone I could imagine running her own costume drama blog. As striking as Bright Star looks, Jane Campion is an underrated writer. Here’s a movie with no sex, no profanity, no violence. You’re right about it being slow and yet the relationship between Fanny and Keats was absolutely riveting. Thanks for commenting!

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