Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Austen Effect: Remaking Romantic History as a Novel of Manners

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Austen Effect: Remaking Romantic History as a Novel of Manners

Article excerpt

The 2009 release of Bright Star, Jane Campion's film about John Keats's last years and his relationship with Fanny Brawne, engendered a range of reactions. Writing for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw contended, "The movie is vulnerable to mockery or irony from pundits who might feel that ... their appreciation of the poet exceeds that of the director. Nonetheless, I think it is a deeply felt and intelligent film, one of those that has grown in my mind on a second viewing; it is almost certainly the best of Campion's career." A. O. Scott of The New York Times and Frances Wilson in the Times Literary Supplement likewise praised Campion's focus on the end of Keats's life through the lens of his love for Brawne. As Bradshaw anticipated, however, the response from academics was considerably more circumspect. One of the most vocal critics of Bright Star was Christopher Ricks, who took issue with both the actors' voicing of Keats's poems and with Jane Campion's more general approach to dramatizing Keats's lyricism. In The New York Review of Books, Ricks singles out Campion's literal-minded approach of providing concrete visual analogs for the images invoked in Keats's poems; a film should, above all, never offer simple "pictures of the very things that a great writer has superbly--by means of the chosen medium of words alone--enabled us to imagine, to picture. A film that proceeds to furnish competing pictures of its own will render pointless the previous acts of imagination that it purports to respect or to honor. For among the accomplishments of the poet is that he or she brings it about that we see with the mind's eye, as against the eye of flesh" (46).

Ricks is not saying that poetry in general, or Keats's poetry in particular, is hostile to the cinematic imagination; rather, he finds fault with Campion's use of literal visual analogs for Keats's poetic images. For her part, Campion has identified her primary source material as Keats's correspondence, rather than his poetry: "I read all the letters. I didn't read all the poems. Then I worked out a storyline" (Sullivan 87). Accordingly, during a voiceover sequence in Bright Star in which Keats (Ben Whishaw) reads from a letter he wrote to Fanny about a walk on seashore, the audience sees a shot of Whishaw standing on a beach looking at the ocean. Similarly, when Whishaw's Keats recites the sonnet "Bright Star" to Abbie Cornish's Brawne, he utters the speaker's sensation of being "pillowed on my fair love's breast" as he is, literally, resting his head on Cornish's bosom.

The shortcomings Ricks describes are perhaps difficult to avoid in a film with some extremely ambitious aims. In the panel discussion on the film at the New York Public Library in September, 2009, Timothy Corrigan interpreted Campion's focus on Brawne as a "feminist intervention" even as the director also sought to introduce Keats's achievement to a mainstream, contemporary audience. Campion's dual goal of entertaining and educating reflects the ideological legacy of its producers, which were public service broadcasters from Australia (Screen Australia) and the UK (BBC films). The goal of education and entertainment has been an established part of public service broadcasting, particularly in the British commonwealth, since the earliest days (the 1920s) of the BBC under its first general director, Lord John Reith; a film about Keats would certainly seem to fall within the remit of organizations like the BBC, charged with cultivating a collective appreciation of British cultural traditions. Part of making Keats's life story and work accessible to a wide public means, for Campion, situating that work within a visual formula that straightforwardly translates imaginative transformation into concrete images. Rather than attempting to defamiliarize our experience, Campion aims to make Keats's language familiar by presenting tactile and visually knowable origins for his linguistic processing of reality. …

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