Sunday, February 14, 2010

Speaking the King's (Bright Star and In the Loop)

(Warning: spoilers.)

Some were surprised to learn that Quentin Tarantino was a big fan of Bright Star, but it's really not so hard to fathom. Jane Campion's movie about the short-lived, lovestruck romance between Fanny Brawne and John Keats takes language and art seriously and is "chaste" in the best possible sense. (During the above-linked interview, Ella Taylor replies to QT, "Your movies are pretty chaste too.") The film even offers a shot that eroticizes Fanny's feet. Ever the sensualist, Campion has had a bit of a wayward streak since causing a stir with 1993's The Piano. Holy Smoke and In the Cut were crackpot efforts nevertheless more interesting than given credit for, and critics who took umbrage at her unabashedly feminist perspective gleefully pounced. Bright Star is made with clearer purpose and control without sacrificing Campion's tactile sense of atmosphere, and it's a great film for about three quarters of the way through.

The Australian actress Abbie Cornish plays Brawne as a voluptuous and emotionally direct 19th-century woman, an archetypal Campion heroine if ever there was one. The opening image shows fashionista Fanny stitching one of her many self-designed outfits (made by Janet Patterson, deservedly nominated for an academy award). The close-up of a needle going through thread initially made me think Campion was inviting us to laugh at her patented phallic imagery, but the movie doesn't play out as a subversive take on the period romance genre. Bright Star is Campion's Straight Story, and unlike Lynch's covert weirdness in that film, she unironically commits herself to telling the story straight.

Filtering John Keats through Fanny's perspective does free the movie from typical biopic conventions. Played by Ben Whishaw (who recently starred as a more contemporary poet, one of the Bob Dylans in I'm Not There), his Keats is no legendary bard but a penniless, self-effacing rail of a man who falls in love with Fanny not long after she criticizes one of his poems. Their relationship evolves as these things typically do, with the kind of repressed-British-polite-manners-walks-in-the-countryside-romantic-misunderstandings that drive me crazy in nearly every Jane Austen adaptation. (I sort of liked Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice adaptation, thanks mainly to Keira Knightley and Donald Sutherland and despite Brenda Blethyn's best efforts to sabotage their good work with her grating look-at-me-isms.) Yet Paul Schneider brings some unpredictably crazy energy to the role of Keats's colleague, friend and possible rival Charles Brown, who locks horns with Fanny so intensely it's unclear exactly with whom he's in love with. Campion, meanwhile, along with her cinematographer Greig Fraser, conjure some remarkable images of nature as a visual complement to Keats' poetry. (The lovely score by Mark Bradshaw -- the antithesis of James Horner's sis-boom-ba! -- provides an assist.)

Bright Star stumbles only in the overlong third act, when an Ominous Cough precedes a sharp decline in Keats's health, and there's nothing left for the characters to do but await the inevitable. (He died at 25.) Brown's behavior also takes a bizarre turn as the result of his philandering with the Brawne family maid (a funny turn by Antonia Campbell-Hughes). Additionally, I concur with The Film Doctor's astute point that Fanny's own artistic talents are raised only to turn her into a "groupie" by film's end. (Early on, Fanny boasts to Keats and Brown that her profession affords her the opportunity to actually make money.) If Campion is trying to say something about gender roles here I missed it. Her voice is stronger when it uses the love letters between Brawne and Keats (based on their actual correspondence) to show how passions can ignite when a couple is apart; and her eye speaks more profoundly than any words when Fanny sits in a field of violet flowers, lies in bed before a curtain wafting in the wind, or transforms her bedroom into a haven for butterflies.

Had Bright Star come out a few years earlier, it may have provided a punchline for Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the scabrous Chief of Communications for Great Britain in the brutally funny political satire In the Loop, who tries to steer, swindle, bully and blackmail his more pensive cohorts into following the United States into an unnamed war in the Middle East. (The year is 2004, take a wild guess.) Tucker, who resembles a starving hyena eager to suck a marrow, would seem on the face of it to have no personal life, yet his colorful use of language is peppered with pop-culture references. He calls one underling, "baby from Eraserhead," and another "woman from The Crying Game." When a waffling deputy minister (Tom Hollander) pivots from publicly calling war "unforseeable" to assuring Britannia that they must "climb the mountain of conflict," Tucker barks, "You sounded like a Nazi Julie Andrews!"

The entirety of In the Loop is one quotable zinger after another, and the basic premise along with a couple of characters (namely Capaldi's Tucker and Chris Addison's Eraserhead-baby doppelganger Toby Wright) have been adapted by director/co-writer Armando Ianucci from his British TV series The Thick of It. I've never seen an episode, but the movie stands well enough on its own, racing back and forth between London and Washington, D.C. and populated by an Anglo-American cast who dig into their roles with relish. James Gandolfini is the dovish general who warns that the number of troops committed to the invasion will be the number of actual casualties -- "and at the end of a war you need to have some soldiers left," he deadpans, "or else it looks like you've lost." Mimi Kennedy plays a State Department official whose efforts to stop the war are undermined by an ill-timed dental issue, while David Rasche's dry wit is put to hilarious use as her superior, the Assistant Secretary of State, who complains that he "cannot stand to see a woman bleed from the mouth" because "it reminds me of that country-and-western music, which I cannot abide."

Hawks and doves, fake hawks and fake doves, conspire with and against each other on both sides of the pond, and everyone ends up corrupted or compromised. In the Loop is more focused than its predecessor Wag the Dog, which started promisingly before going slack via Barry Levinson's typical meandering. The movie also features the funniest and most pervasive profanity since Deadwood, spat by Capaldi and the rest of the cast like shards of glass. If the jadedness of In the Loop starts to feel a little relentless while you're watching it, individual scenes become even funnier when replayed later in your mind. One such instance is a confrontation between Malcolm Tucker and Gandolfini's general where the latter informs the former, "You might be some scary little poodle-fucker over in England, but over here you're nothing," and Tucker, with full Scottish brogue, replies, "Don't ever call me fucking English again." 


FilmDr said...

Excellent post, and thanks for the link. I had mixed feelings about the latter third of Bright Star. My significant other pointed out that Campion got Cornish to show many of the emotions that a young woman in love hardly ever gets to show in cinema, but I agree with your point about Keats' ominous cough. It is almost comical the way he fades away just when Fanny becomes most obsessed with him. At any rate, I wonder how many films I've seen as of late that doesn't have a disappointing third act?

Craig said...

Your significant other has a good point, Film Doc. It is a different kind of emotional trajectory, and Abbie Cornish is fantastic. (I'd have nominated her and Michelle Monaghan from Trucker over any of the Best Actress contenders.) Campion certainly seems faithful to the actual story; but I think the last act calls for something more than just a gradual winding down. It calls for something poetic cinematically to match Keats's own poetry. And it's clear from The Piano and parts of her other movies that she's capable of delivering it.

Still a very good film.

Craig said...

By the way, just browsing through the comments for Bright Star at IMDb and elsewhere, it seems to be developing a small but passionately devoted following that reminds me for some reason of the one for The New World. Not everyone likes the movie. But those who do like it really like it. A lot.