Jane Campion is a rare filmmaker—she has the ability to shift your molecules, your awareness, the way you think. You stumble out of her films in a daze, and the images, ideas, and moments within, they simply don't leave. She's done it before with the likes of An Angel at My Table and The Piano, and her newest film, Bright Star, is a winning addition to her singular canon.
After a six-year hiatus, Bright Star was sparked by the story of Fanny Brawne, the teenager who fell in love with Romantic poet John Keats and inspired his amazing, beautiful love letters and some of his greatest poems, including the gorgeous "Bright Star." Brawne, embodied by Australian actress Abbie Cornish (Stop-Loss, Somersault), is full of teenage fire and ardor, moments of brattiness, grace, and wisdom. It's a mesmerizing portrait of a girl, who—in her love and all it entails—becomes a woman.
Keats, the great poet-next-door, is played by the feline Ben Whishaw (I'm Not There, Perfume). He lives with his friend, the Scotsman Charles Armitage Brown (American actor Paul Schneider, who's currently in NBC's Parks and Recreation) in a rattling, beautiful house in lush Hampton, north London. Brown is a roaring brute to Keats' gentle soul, slowly fading from tuberculosis. When Fanny arrives, a "minx-stress," as Keats teasingly calls her, she throws a wrench into the works. Campion keeps the film grounded and earthy, rooted in the everyday—and as it is, the transcendent moments take flight, from the stunning natural beauty of the land to the longing, tension-filled, beautiful moments of Brawne and Keats falling for each other. It is a remarkably sensual and sexy film, about a relationship that is never consummated, which is quite the change from Campion's previous works.
Bright Star is an achievement. Appropriately enough, Campion, longtime producer Jan Chapman, and actors Whishaw, Cornish, and Schneider (whom we interviewed here), all appeared at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park (where the offices of the Poetry Society of America are located). We had the pleasure of sitting down with all of them—roundtable interviews are rarely this smart and pleasurable—and the results are below. Welcome back, Jane: film needs your vision.
How did you go about casting Abbie?
Jane Campion: When an actor has this special quality, people talk about it from day one. It's that rare thing where there's a mystery to them and a strength and the element of surprise—you don't know what they're going to do. Abbie liked the script. She said she felt it was alive and breathing.
What surprised me was that she could do the sassy young Fanny, but she did it in a way where she was just so pleased with herself and it wasn't cheap or irritating. She just loved being young and alive and beautiful and gorgeous. And on the other side of it she had this heart, she could really travel that distance. When that game playing started to hurt them, when Keats said, "I can't take that. Be sweet to me, be kind, be vulnerable," she got that. Their connection was pretty profound, in anybody's book, and very loyal.
Meeting the different girls made me realize something about Australian girls—we've got a few of them—they're brought up in a much less submissive way than English girls, sure, even Americans! [she laughs] That's a challenge to you!
How did you prepare to play John Keats?
Ben Whishaw: I wanted to try and understand as much as possible, read as much as possible. I did a lot of reading. I read Andrew Motion's biography and I read about four other biographies and all the letters, which really are the best way in because they're so incredibly intimate. I think they must be the most intimate in literature, really. Letters, poetry, biographies. We never wanted to be academic about it, so I think we both—Jane and I—we read a lot and had to find the right Keats for our film, our story. It's a kind of poem on their story, which is all it can be. Jane was a very big influence as well on the way we represented him. I think she had a very particular kind of vision in mind.
What was it like auditioning for the role of Fanny Brawne?
Abbie Cornish: I read the script and instantly I was swept up and loved it. I did an audition with Jane that was two hours long. It was just myself and Jane and the composer of the film, who's the same age as Keats and Keatish in his energy. It was a really nice day, it didn't feel like a heavy audition in any way. I was the first person Jane saw and then she went off around the rest of the world and came back to me.
Jane said that Australian girls are "less submissive" than English girls and American girls. Why is that?
AC: I grew up in the country, I grew up on a farm with a brother two years older and two years younger. So I was riding horses and riding motorbikes and driving cars when I was 11 or 12 years old, racing around the alley track in the back of the house. I don't know, it definitely frees your spirit—
I get it now!
AC: Even city girls, a couple of my girlfriends who are from the city, they're definitely sure of themselves and they're bold and they know what they're doing.
Did you bring that assuredness to Fanny?
AC: You bring as much as you can of yourself to a character, I think. Because there's always so much you have to figure out that you don't know. So when you can bring things that you do know it's like whoo! okay, that makes it a little easier. Each day at work when I was looking at scenes, some of them you understand, they just make sense. Then there's other ones and you sit there and scratch your head and think, how am I going to do this? You have to research, you have to talk to people, you have to sympathize with scenarios like it, and it takes a little more work.
Jane, what were you like as a teenager?
JC: I was hiding. I was trying to be submissive, I guess. I was trying to be what it was okay to be. To be liked. It was not a very inspiring place to be. Every now and again you'd break out. I think that's why I loved to work so much, it was a place to be my whole self. And I kind of made the mistake of creating an identity that wasn't really me as I was growing up. My world, filmmaking, being involved in those worlds, has liberated me now. I think I'm less afraid because of it.
Did you feel constrained as an actor, portraying a relationship that was so chaste?
BW: I never really thought about them being chaste. I knew that there were limitations upon their relationship, but they felt more like the limitations that were on most relationships in those days. You couldn't go around—Abbie and I were sitting together, we were surrrounded by Keats' friends. Abbie and I put our hands, just instinctively, on each other's knees, and Jane said, "No no no, you can't do that." I thought it was very passionate, very sensual. Just because it's only a kiss doesn't mean it's not as powerful and sensual and electric as something that's obviously more... fulfilling.
How was it working with all the butterflies on set, and the cat? The cat was a real scene-stealer!
AC: The scene where Fanny's threatening to take her own life with a little knife, just cutting notches. I think it was the second take and the cat was just starting to kill a butterfly on the wall. It got to the point where it had this butterfly in its hand and I was like, I have to do something because I'm an animal lover and I'm not having a butterfly die on set with me. I was like, "No Topper!" and we went and finished the whole take. I love stuff like that, when you're working and things you don't expect happen. Heath Ledger (her co-star in Candy) was like that. He was always in the moment and always capturing everything around him. But in this film, when we finished the take, we all looked up and giggled for awhile. Jane said, "We got it. It's done."
How did you see Fanny in the context of her society?
AC: Obviously I studied that whole world and historically what it was like and how it felt, and then I went on the journey of exploration of character and found Fanny Brawne, regardless of that time. Found her and who she was and put her in the context of that. That was the fun part, having this girl and putting her in a scene with her mum and her mum saying, "No, you can't do this." How does she feel and how does she react to that? For me, there's so much integrity in her character and so much awareness. She understand what's going on around her. She's not stupid. She knows why she can't be with Keats but that doesn't mean she won't be with him. I enjoyed her journey. It's just one that's so pure and full of love and so compelling, but at the same time there are all these things being thrown at her.
JC: I did feel somewhat that Fanny had been misunderstood. To me, reading the letters, anything you can get your hands on from the time, all you can see is incredible loyalty and incredible love. And some people persisted in saying she was promiscuous. I don't know where it came from, from paranoia of Keats (in the letters) when they were separated, she was dancing, she loved to dance! He was imagining that she was flirting and she wasn't. She was heartbroken. His illness made him pretty paranoid at one stage, suffering from fevers and things like that can make you hallucinate.
The film is earthy. Not typical of a period piece.
BW: Jane definitely didn't want it to be stiff and formal, or in any way like we were acting in a period film. I think she absolutely wanted it to be relaxed and natural. Jane's really interesting to watch on set, she tries to get herself really relaxed and she just listens—I don't even know if she's watching, but she would go, "Yeah, I listened to you that time." [She got] what we were working for to let it speak beyond the period. She's also interested in everyday-ness and domesticity and stuff like that, more than the social side of things. And Keats was famously uncomfortable in social situations, which is why she honed in on the private and domestic.
Fanny is dressed amazingly, and as the film moves forward, she's in different colors, more muted tones.
JC: She's under his influence after a while. We imagined that as he got more ill, it was probably toned down. As a fact, she used to dress up for him. (Campion gets up and imitates what Fanny would've done at the window.) "Oh, I've got a new dress sewn. Come to the window and I'll show it to you." I do imagine it became a little more sober.
Those costumes were based on reality? Wow!
JC: Yes, they wore incredibly wild colors in those days.
Jan Chapman: We have a brilliant costume designer, Janet Patterson, who did the costumes and the sets. She works a lot from character and story, rather than thinking, "That's a great costume, and I'll put it on that person."
JC: She tries to work out their world and what they might've had and also she works with fabrics and textures, also knowing she would have control of the colors and look of the sets. What I love about Janet as a designer is that she works for story, not just for the look. And yet she's a deeply stylish person.
Abbie, what was it like working with Jane?
AC: She's an incredibly special person. Very sensitive and so—just—intertwined with what was going on. A couple of scenes that Ben and I did together, I think the first AD would call "Cut" because Jane was glued to the monitor, totally immersed in the scene, tears dripping down her face. I would turn around and see Jane, she was just in the scene with us, the invisible person in the scene. So nice to have a director invested in what they were doing.
What was your favorite piece of Keats' writing? Was there anything that struck you about the poet while doing research?
AC: "Bright Star," I just love that poem and I spent so much time learning it and investigating it and it took on its own life within me. It's such a gorgeous piece of work. And I really love the sixth verse in "Ode to an Nightingale," but my favorite poem as a whole was "Bright Star."
BW: So many things, I keep forgetting, they're so rich in little gems, little things, phrases he'd coin or ideas that he came up with. I suppose the one that became a kind of philosophy for the whole way we approach the film was this idea, that he mentions in a letter, which he calls "negative capability." Which is sort of talked about in the film when Keats is talking about diving in the lake. I think it's, "Negative capability shows capacity to be in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason." That's what he admired in great writers. Also, kind of a philosophy of life, of being present in the mystery, of being happy not understanding everything. That became a very important thing for me to remember. For all of us, actually, in the atmosphere on set.
The film was so beautiful. Was there anything in particular about the locations that inspired you?
JC: We had to be careful not to fetishize it. To keep it really, this is just here, this is actually nature. To keep it classical, keep it simple. Because after a while it could be florid or almost sickening. It was always a measure of let it be here, it's here. But it is here and it's gorgeous! Butterflies live on this planet. (Campion laughs.)
Will teenage girls sympathize with the film?
AC: I think they'll sympathize and empathize. I can't wait to show my little sister, who's 15, this movie. I really hope for younger girls they can watch it and see it and get a sense of what love is about. Maybe it will allow them to be who they are and understand themselves. In this world today, it can be confusing for a young girl. There are so many choices, and at the end of the day there's this strong purity and a core in all of us that the film explores.
There's so much restraint in their relationship. Was that difficult to put on screen?
JC: Haven't you ever felt that restraint yourself? When you're not sure how people feel or how you feel about them, I think those are probably the tensest moments of each relationship. Kisses are amazing. The first kiss does seal a relationship. It's hard to go back from that.