Poetry in Motion

Photo: Courtesy of Apparition

Jane Campion’s high-strung romance Bright Star has a rhythm all its own—glancing yet abrasive. Every quick exchange conveys violence: not physical, but with physical power, as if blood could truly be poisoned by lovesickness and a heart could literally break. In pungent strokes, the film depicts the agonizingly unconsummated affair of the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his young Hampstead neighbor, the flirtatious, fashionable Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). She begs Keats to tutor her in poetry and longs to become his wife, however dire his prospects; he writhes from the sting of poverty and critical disdain. There is a third unruly force: Keats’s friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), whose antipathy toward Fanny borders on invasive. He mocks and harangues her, consciously adopting the manners of the ape she has branded him—determined to keep his fragile Keats in a pure state, primed for the visit of the Muse. Given the stress on the poor Romantic genius, it’s surprising his first consumptive cough takes as long to arrive as it does.

Bright Star is the nearest the New Zealand–born auteur Campion has come to what Keats called “negative capability,” which I’ll define here as entering fully into an imaginative world and leaving one’s arty mannerisms and punishingly masochistic feminist agenda behind. Well, there is a modest feminist agenda. Working with poet and Keats biographer Sir Andrew Motion, Campion aims to salvage Brawne’s good name. In the nineteenth century, she gained a reputation as an Alma Mahler–like slut (only less beautiful and talented) who overtaxed her brilliant lover and had the tastelessness to publish his demonstrative love letters when his star was posthumously ascendant. The movie leaves no doubt that the world is better for those sublime letters, and that the bullyboy Brown—who knocks up the Irish maid (Antonia Campbell-Hughes)—is male predatory instinct incarnate. What keeps all this from seeming overmelodramatic is Schneider’s huge performance, which is too hilarious. All costume dramas need actors this rude.

Even if you set aside Schneider, Bright Star is remarkably evocative. It is our postmodern, ironic way to picture Romantic poets as lyrical fops lolling under gray English skies, their musings interrupted by bronchial spasms aimed at tastefully blood-spotted handkerchiefs. But Campion brings out the tension between Keats’s supple language, with its yearning for the eternal (“Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art … ”), and his fevered awareness of his own mortality. One scene—in which a miserable Fanny and her little sister, “Toots” (Edie Martin), fill her room with butterflies—has a visionary mixture of beauty and evanescence. Production and costume designer Janet Patterson revels in the eye-popping showiness of 1820s fashions—Brawne’s self-sewn flouncy ruffles, the elongated top hats—without tipping into camp. Their movie has too much rough texture for camp.

Cornish and Whishaw are wonderfully matched. She’s plusher than in the past, and her character struggles for poise in a way that’s most un–Keira Knightley. She’s a touching mess when she lies on her bed, all coquettishness burned away, and moans, “Is this love? I’ll never tease about it again.” Whishaw gropes his way through verses I know so well as if he’s still working on them. There isn’t a less-than-perfect performance, but in the end, my heart belongs to Toots. Young Edie Martin, with her chaotic swarm of red ringlets and deadpan dutifulness (she has few lines, but they’re goodies), is the movie’s sign of eternal spring—the butterfly atop the just-opened blossom.

Two films depict wildly disparate whistle-blowers: Steven Soderbergh’s true-ish comedy The Informant! and Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. What a contrast: a limp burlesque and a straight-ahead, enthralling story of moral courage.

The former, based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald, plays like a pale, depopulated Burn After Reading with a fatted Matt Damon doing a Halloween number—dark hair helmet, big glasses, thick mustache. He plays Mark Whitacre, who exposed a price-fixing conspiracy at Archer Daniels Midland but turned out to be a major head case. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns are utterly uninterested in corporate misbehavior and its ramifications, so the agribusiness giant comes off as a rather convivial enterprise. They home in on the freak show, presenting Whitacre as the wacked-out soul of corporate America—a man who sees vacant land and dreams of outlet stores, food courts. This is yet another of Soderbergh’s “exercises in style,” which means he has one big idea and sticks to it. He makes the space shallow and ugly (faces are bathed in orange) and adds groovy sixties titles and Marvin Hamlisch music. The Informant! does raise a fascinating question: How can humans so compartmentalize their psyches? But Whitacre has no stature—he’s just a nut. Steven Spielberg explored this duality—and the crazy hope underlying it—so much more engagingly in Catch Me If You Can.

The Most Dangerous Man in America also centers on an insider who attempted, in vain, to reconcile his career and his conscience. But this story changed the world. I’m ashamed to admit I knew so little about Ellsberg, a marine who studied decision-making under duress, fought the Cold War fight against Stalinist dictatorships, then traveled from Santa Monica, California, and the Rand Corporation to the Mekong Delta. There he saw firsthand that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, made the case to his superiors, and watched in shock as they lied their asses off. The more he studied the history of Southeast Asia, the more he saw that all the presidents lied: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and finally Nixon, who campaigned on a platform of stopping the war while in private vowing to hammer “this shit-ass little country.” Narrated by Ellsberg, the movie offers one revelatory interview after another mixed with reenactments (animated) that have fun with the caper-movie aspect and build real suspense. So many people risked their livelihoods to put the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers out there—although its most tangible result was the creation of Nixon’s plumbers unit. We have not celebrated Daniel Ellsberg enough. Let’s begin.

Bright Star
Directed by Jane Campion.
Apparition. PG.

The Informant!
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Warner Bros. Pictures. R.

The Most Dangerous Man in America
Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith.
Self-Distributed. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Poetry in Motion