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September 13, 2009

Brilliant Star; Drab Gray

Observations from Day 4 of the Toronto International Film Festival

Jane Campion's Bright Star is a heartfelt, carefully drawn, masterpiece of a love story, It contains all the fire and penetration one would expect from a Campion film, but there is also a surprising--and welcome--tenderness as well. "They were so young," Campion said of John Keats and Fannie Brawne when introducing the film. There is a protectiveness that she clearly felt about the love story at the heart of the biography, one that shields the film from the dull hagiography that permeates so many biopics and the more strident polemicizing that gets conflated with passion in some of Campion's earlier works.

Campion also mentioned that she was not a fan of poetry before she read the biography of Keats that prompted the film. Yet this, too, surprisingly works to the film's advantage. Brawne is presented as one who only gradually comes to understand and appreciate the poetry, and this allows her to serve as a surrogate for the audience. Not that the film is stingy with Keats's words--it isn't. But the work is always subordinated to the soul that produced it. In this, the film is like an anti-Shakespeare in Love, where it is clear that the woman loves the poetry first and the man only for producing it.

As a scholar of literature who has always found the Romantic poets to be more narcissistic and self-indulgent than deep, more about sensation than truth and beauty, I was deeply appreciative of the film's ability to make me understand the greatness of Keats's and Brawne's spirits and not merely their accomplishments.

Jesus said, "When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." I've never really understood that verse before, and the film doesn't mention it explicitly (nor honestly, any conventional religious ideas for that that matter), but I feel as though I might have caught a glimpse of the truth at the heart of that verse in a poetic sort of way.

Dorian Gray should be popular with the student crowd that wants to avoid having to read the Oscar Wilde novel on which it is based, On cursory glance this material ought to be tailor made for an adaptation in an age that is a bit more permissive about what can be rendered explicitly on the screen. For all the bodice ripping and bedding down, however, there is surprisingly little at stake in Gray's moral deterioration. His descent into debauchery is too swift to suggest internal conflict, and it carries little of the pathos one gets form works like The Godfather, Eyes Wide Shut, or The Sopranos.

From a moral standpoint, one problem with the work might be that one always feels that Wilde is a bit more on the side of the tempter than the resister. Most of Colin Firth's lines got big laughs, but by the time Gray (Ben Barnes) complains that he has only followed Wotton's advice the audience is far enough removed from the instruction in debauchery to feel complicit for encouraging it.

The real problem is a structural one, though. Once the moral slide begins, there is a dreary monotony to each regression. A seduction. A suspicion. A murder. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Even the portrait is a bit of a MacGuffin; it is actually shown very little and used less as a poetic symbol (like the scarlet letter) and more as a geographical focal point to allow long, ominous tracking shots to closed doors.

The one place, oddly enough, where the film perks up is when Gray visits a confessional. When he insists that most of us could not stand a glimpse of our own souls, we understand that the painting is a symbol of the human condition and not just a supernatural talisman for one man. Ultimately, though, this scene also fizzles, one more example of a church unable to offer any substantive help or answers to those who see the world as it really is.

The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890, but the film is decidedly twentieth century in the way it channels the source material's cynicism to the point of appearing almost nihilistic. "You possess the only two things worth having," Wotton tells Dorian, "youth and beauty."

I wonder if John Keats and Fannie Brawne would agree?

Tomorrow's Screenings: A Solitary Man, The Road, Agora, Life During Wartime.

Guest blogger Kenneth R. Morefield, an English prof at Campbell University, is writing about the Toronto International Film Festival for CT Movies.

Related Tags: Bright Star, Dorian Gray, Jane Campion


What did you think of the performances of the two leads in Bright Star?

Sarah, I thought both of the leads were superb. Cornish had the harder task in that the script called for her to vocalize her emotions a bit more, and she could easily have botched it by playing these scenes too plaintively. While Brawne isn't perfect, she has substance, and much of that comes from the way Cornish aligns herself physically in the presence of others. I guess my big fear with Keats was that Whishaw would turn him into a male Camille, wringing every last consumptive cough for bathos rather than pathos. His pace is not overly deliberate, but it is slow enough to make Keats feel more intelligent and sensitive than polished and witty. It's very hard for male actors (or males, for that matter) to be transparent, but Keats's utter lack of artifice was central to the film's success, and Whishaw absolutely nails it.

Honestly i have to say that Dorian Gray may not be a copy of the book word for word but they have still captered what the book is about and that is the fact that sin can destroy that human soul!!! the book may centure alot on the influencer but it also centures more on the affect of that influence, that is why it has Dorian Grays name on the cover and not Lord Henrys, and there is a difference in The Scarlet Letter and Dorian Gray, with Hester everybody knew her sin but with Dorian he kept it secret!!!! and personaly when i fount out that this movie was a book i could not wait to read it!!! i could even say that this book taught me what sin really is and the effect it has on the soul!! It CHANGED MY LIFE!!!