Sunday, 6 December 2009

Cinema Review: Bright Star

Has there ever been a good film about a poet, about poetry?

If you measure quality in body count and explosions, certainly not, although Arnie as The Terminator had a way with a catchphrase.

If you rate your films in laughs, probably not, unless your idea of a joke is James Bond playing Ted Hughes in 'Sylvia'. There is something preppy about Gwyneth Paltrow, but you can't imagine her writing 'Ariel' or 'The Bell Jar'.

Take your pick of the Bukowski flicks, but they're about the bum, not the bum's work. That said, the bum's life was his work and Mickey Rourke, the star of 'Barfly', was at least a kindred spirit.

'Il Postino' is a fine film and Pablo Neruda was a great poet, but the film takes plenty of liberties with the man - transplanting hims exile from Chile to Italy - but you do get a sense of a poet working, or trying to work. The real star, however, is the postman of its title, and although the soundtrack of the movie contains plenty of poetry, it is the protagonist's belated coming of age and finding love that is the at movie's beating heart, Neruda being his guide to life and romance. It won an Oscar, and deservedly so, but had the postman's mentor been a novelist, painter or composer, would the essence of the film been lost?

As for 'Tom and Viv', it began as a stage play and its cinematic incarnation doesn't entirely transcend those more intimate origins. William Dafoe and Miranda Richardson are both talented actors, but whether they inhabited their characters as they were in life is moot. Perhaps the form of a biopic will never serve poetry well, and this example isn't helped by the Eliot estate's refusal to allow the incorporation of any of his work, not surprising given the not entirely sympathetic depiction of the plight of the straitlaced banker being married to a more-than-kooky heiress. Ultimately, I didn't find empathy with either character easy and that limited my enjoyment; if you get over that, it could be a rewarding two hours.

As for 'Bright Star', the Jane Campion biopic of John Keats in the last months of his life in England, I didn't find empathy either, but that's because Keats is played as a wet rag and Fanny Brawne switches from cutesiness to hysteria without much in between. Yes, it is beautifully shot and fans of the costume drama will no doubt forgive its faults and wallow in the period charm and Pre-Raphaelite cinematography, but its not one for the boys' night out.

Incidentally, 'Bright Star' the sonnet was first published in the Plymouth and Devonport Gazette. If a contemporary local paper publishes a poem at all, it is invariably Aunt Maude's Ode to her recently deceased cat. No doubt Aunt Maude would love the film and like the poem, which conveys - in fourteen lines that define nineteenth century Romantic poetry - what the movie fails deliver in two hours - of what John Keats felt for his greatest love:

Bright Star

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art--
Not in lone 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.

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