Bright Star, Muse to Amuse Keats

DATELINE: Campion as Keats Champion

Whishaw as Keats Ill-tailored poet.

Ben Whishaw is John Keats in this sumptuous movie by Jane Campion. If you want a sense of what living in 1818 was like, this film will provide it—from drafty houses to ill-fitting clothes.

Director Jane Campion ended her feature-length movie association with this effort called Bright Star. She felt there was no room in movie universe nowadays for real literary films with the domination of cartoon heroes stealing all box-office receipts.

Keats is a Romantic poet, but that does not mean he should be presented as a Hallmark cable channel character. Romance is a 19th century philosophy, not a sentimental love story.

Campion illustrates the quaint conceits of another era when bohemian poets hit the wall of standard social norms.

This is a costume drama where the costumes are shabby because there really was no haute fashion when poet John Keats was putting ink to paper—with grubby ink-stained fingers.

Though Abbie Cornish is delightful as the “bright star,” in Keats’ life, she is maddeningly and alternately feminist and fading flower. It makes the movie almost guaranteed to please nobody. This film likely impressed Madonna enough to give Cornish the lead in her film of the romance of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in W./E. the following year.

Campion, as director, is an artist true to herself, like Keats, and she walks a fine line with her saucy seamstress as muse.

After playing Sebastian in Brideshead, Ben Whishaw had cornered the market on sensitive/effete men for a few years, and his Keats may be poetic, but we don’t have a sense of his “consumptive” doom within a few years. It may be a shock to those who don’t know the biographic facts. Marriage is not within his power because of debt, not illness.

This may seem a frivolous love story on some levels, but director Campion has eschewed directing films ever since—to our great detriment as followers of intelligent character study.





Brideshead Remade & Revisited

DATELINE: Movies Over TV

Brideshead 2008

Sebastian and Charles in Happier Days.

Back in the early 1980s, one of the grandest early miniseries was that of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It made stars out of Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews as the stylish Oxford boys of the 1920s.

It’s been re-made, of course, now a regular size movie, not a 14-hour epic. It is digestible, though the character of Charles is not palatable.

This time Ben Whishaw is the foppish noble Sebastian of Brideshead, and his friend is Charles (Matthew Goode) who has affairs with both brother and sister along his calculating life.

An abridged version still manages to capture all the salient details and key scenes, especially in the idyllic and romantic early days with Sebastian. Young Lord Flyte tries to keep Charles from his family, whom he knows will devastate their relationship. He never counted on the fact that Charles brought his own wrecking ball.

Whishaw seemed to have cornered the market on slightly epicene young men for a time, and Matthew Goode has made a career of elevating every movie and series he joins. He even showed up at Downton Abbey.

Emma Thompson is along as the devout Catholic mother of Sebastian, but it is Julia (played by Hayley Atwell) who is a lynchpin of the lynch mob. Nearly every character blames Charles for being a rapacious game player, though he is at a loss to understand the attacks.

The breaking point is Michael Gambon’s effective work as the family patriarch when Charles tries to prevent a priest from giving last rites to the man.

Part of the drama is the lead-up to his denial of self-knowledge that causes him to lose everything of meaning. Sebastian’s friend Antony scathingly notes he thought at first that Charles was a lamb, but later saw he was the true predator.

It may be news for the oblivious in the audience too.

The condensed movie of the longer miniseries is still effective and powerful. Fans of the 1980s version will recognize that one constant came back to replay its role.

Castle Howard once again stands in for Brideshead, and it is still undiminished in its majesty.



London Spy Provides a Good Gay Cry

DATELINE:  Crying Out Loud

London Cry Spy

A friend insisted that London Spy, a BBC TV series airing this year, was on a par with The Night Manager, the LeCarre miniseries.

So, suckered in, we watched.

Both stories deal with unpleasant people over in MI-6, the British Secret Service, but the heroes of each tale are diamentrically at odds with each other. London Spy is a closet gay man, mysteriously done in, turning his inept, flibbety-gibbet boyfriend into a quasi-pathetic detective.

Ben Whishaw is wishy-washy Danny, one weepy, weak protagonist who finds romantic love with a spy who loved him. Danny, however, is weak as water—and easily manipulated. He learns that the love of his life lied to him at every step of their relationship. It brings him to tears.

Gay kink is moderately investigated as Danny seems to be set up by his boyfriend’s spy pals. Danny is no saint, but discussing sadistic gay life brings him to tears.

An interesting cast features Jim Broadbent (looking surprising thin), Charlotte Rampling (looking surprisingly old), and James Fox (surprisingly underused). Creator of the new Brit Sherlock and actor of Mycroft, Mark Gatiss plays a particularly sleazy music business gay boss. In scenes with each actor, Ben Whishaw is brought to the brink of tears.

Dumb and dumber, the hero seems to fall into every pothole in the plot. Why didn’t MI-6 just toss him off a rooftop, rather than allow him to stir up the muck?

We watched with increasing disdain with each teardrop, yet hoping, somehow, some writer would pull these good actors out of the miasma script that requires Kleenex blotters. Alas, it was a dashed hope. Thankfully, there will not be a season two. We are not crying over this.