stitched up

Though I love the Gainsborough films, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones and Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, I am not generally a fan of contemporary cinematic takes on eighteenth- and nineteenth century literature. This is probably because of what I do: a generation of students who have grown up with the unshakeable idea that potato-faced Colin Firth is actually Mr D’arcy have destroyed much of my enjoyment of Austen and rendered Pride and Prejudice an unteachable text. That said, I was really looking forward to Jane Campion’s Bright Star: she’s a talented, intelligent director who’s interested in gender; the costumes looked just terrific; and I was intrigued by what I’d heard about Fanny Brawne’s relationship to stitch in the film. Much was being made of the fact that Campion had linked Brawne’s “feisty,” and “independent” character to her fondness for textiles and that her heroine designs and makes her own clothes.* I then saw a trailer at the cinema which further piqued my interest. A clip was shown of a “spirited” exchange with Keats, in which Brawne appeared to compare the art of stitch to that of poetry. Unlike poetry, she says, stitch is useful and potentially remunerative. While the path that Keats has chosen means that he will struggle for literary recognition and a living, stitch is something she can actually “make money from.” I was (mildly) blown away. You’ll know by now that much of my research focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century textiles and that I’m particularly interested in the way that textiles mark and mediate women’s relationship to the division of labour. To have a woman of Brawne’s rank saying, in 1818, that her love of fashion had a practical purpose and that she saw dressmaking and design as a potential source of independent income was really quite extraordinary. Was Brawne going to sew her way out of dependence and potential penury? Support herself and Keats by the labours of the needle? What was Campion going to do with stitch?

The unfortunate answer is that stitch and textiles are, for Campion, mere directorial devices — props on which to hang her film’s undoubtedly sumptuous aesthetic. Despite the promise of that early exchange, the idea that stitch might be a practical and a profitable activity for a woman like Brawne was never alluded to or mentioned again. A short way into the film, it became apparent that Brawne’s “independent spirit” only extended as far as some curiously elliptical conversational sparring and the ability to wallow in her own desires. Brawne was only ever going to be someone who, like most women of her rank, was dependent on a good marriage for future financial security and whose narrative, because of this, would be played out in the familiar context of her “impossible” affection for the poet who could not provide it.

Many contemporary female directors seem to use tactility as a shorthand for the rich interior lives of women: a heroine’s physical relationship to the material world can allow a visually astute director to hint at a sensuous and idiosyncratic something that cannot be articulated. This is certainly the case with Campion. Her Fanny Brawne follows in the footsteps of Lucretia Martel’s Niña Santa or Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar– characters who are always touching stuff in order to tell the viewer what’s going on inside. And this is the singular function of textiles in Bright Star. We see Brawne bent over her hoop and needle; working up a collar; carefully tying a ribbon; enjoying the sensation of a breeze-blown curtain, or refusing to examine the quality of her sister’s sampler, and we are meant to read all this in terms of the character’s hidden depths. This is all very well, but the problem here is that there doesn’t really seem to be that much depth to hide. The viewer is meant to trust that all this sewing is the sign of something profound, but there is no other evidence of Brawne’s purported complexity. The most we can learn about her from Campion is that she likes clothes; that she prefers wit over intellect (lying about reading Milton and only ever being able to muster up an interest in Keats’ poetry when she understands that it might refer to herself); and that she has an incredible capacity for self-absorption (luxuriating in the drama of thwarted affection in the most tedious and irritating way.) In this sense, Campion’s characterisation is not really very different from the way that Brawne is represented in the many chauvenistic biographies of Keats that were produced before the 1960s: she is much the same fashion-obsessed, over-emotional ignoramus: an annoying distraction in a nice frock. Far from bolstering her own credentials as a feminist director, then, Campion’s use of stitch and textiles in this film reinforces ideas of nineteenth-century femininity that are disturbingly conservative. Brawne’s discovery of romance simply heightens her own fashionable narcissism and female desire is set in the context of what seems to be a mere preoccupation with material trifles and baubles. In its failure to address the questions it explicitly raises about stitch as a creative outlet, a form of labour, and a potential source of income, the film does little to disturb the notion that a fondness for textiles could be anything more than pointless or enervating, a familiar sign of women’s domestic thrall.

And then there’s the matter of Campion’s particular aesthetic decisions concerning textiles. Though Janet Patterson’s costume design was, at its best, both beautiful and inspiring, some of the garment choices were very weird indeed: Mr Brown’s tartan trews were as ridiculous and misplaced as his “Scottish” accent; Abbie Cornish wore crocheted shawls and boleros of a kind not seen till at least the 1850s, and her younger sister “Toots” sported a curiously cropped Fairisle cardigan over a hundred years before its time. I would forgive all of these historical anachronisms on the grounds of Campion and Patterson’s familiarly stylised creativity, but I’m afraid I became quite fixated on the washing that seemed to be perpetually hung out on Hampstead Heath. In one quite ludicrous scene, Fanny wanders woefully among lines of damp linen inexplicably left out in the rain. Anyone who who has read Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s great poem or who knows anything at all about nineteenth-century domestic life would be aware that, for women in households such as Brawne’s, washing day was a major and momentous event. No self-respecting washerwoman or maidservant, mother or daughter, would have left those things just hanging there in the middle of a shower. Indeed, to do so shows a disregard for household textiles quite bizarre in a woman purportedly obsessed by them. Instead of wallowing in doomed romance, Brawne should have been bringing in the bloody washing .


(The Montgolfier Balloon. If you’ve read the Barbauld poem, you’ll know why it is here)

Now I realise that I am a bit (ahem) hung up on the washing, but I think that Campion’s use of the linen-laden lines on Hampstead Heath is symptomatic of something larger and a little more troubling. Through its focus on aesthetic surfaces and pointlessly lovely tableaux, the film actually does an injustice to the basic texture of the lives of nineteenth-century women like Brawne. Why have her heroine interested in stitch and design at all if this is merely to be used as a cinematic conceit that adds little to her character? There are some other basic textures that are singularly lacking here as well. If I knew absolutely nothing about the poetry of John Keats, I would really be none the wiser after watching Bright Star. The most you can really glean about Keats’ creative impulses from this film is that Fanny’s boobs seem to represent to him the promise of an ecstatic (pneumatic) present.

Campion has apparently spoken of Bright Star as being inspired by Bresson’s Man Escaped. (which is, incidentally, my favourite film). To me, this is laughably pretentious : like comparing Hollyoaks to Mizoguchi.* Actually, Hollyoaks seems quite an appropriate point of reference for the film’s sorry lack of depth and its championing of adolescent self-regard. Take away the senselessly gorgeous textiles, the flower-filled meadows, the strangely stilted dialogue and the too-tasteful interiors and what’s left is the thin drama of teenage obsession. However, Bright Star is a very sneaky film too: because of its style, its “historic” setting, its purported literary context, and Campion’s undoubted talent for the symbolic and emblematic, the film gets away with it: Campion’s signature directorial style makes us feel as if we are being shown something important and momentous, when in actuality what we are being purveyed is mere cinematic candy floss. So this is a film that is both intellectually hollow and horribly otiose, but which stitches up the viewer simply by being visually persuasive. In the end, what Bright Star reminded me of most was an issue of Selvedge: it has that visual wow factor and the thing is just so well produced that we feel that we must be somehow improved simply by consuming it. But (and I say this as someone who has occasionally written for that magazine) in the end there’s very little there of substance beyond the pretty pictures.

* These two reviews are typical in their descriptions of Brawne as a ‘seamstress’ or their association of her ‘spirit’ and ‘self possession’ to her supposed relationship to stitch.
**Another British soap comparison: at her most histrionic, Abbie Cornish bears a disturbing resemblance to Mary from Coronation Street.

I dedicate this post to Kris Steyaert, a fine Keats scholar and a very good friend.

55 responses

  1. Whereas when I saw the movie, I got all wound up about the depiction of nature… :)

    (Which I thought was very cleverly done to produce a rather poetic visual and aural filmic experience, but left very little of substance in terms of what Keats et al thought/ felt about the topic).

    Great post. Thanks.

  2. I have learned more from this post about textile, Keats, film making, presentation, and several other things, than I have in all my previous years of study and experience.
    Thank you for a very thought provoking morning read. I love your spirit.

  3. What a WONDERFUL poem – thank you so much for the link. I have memories of my mum’s washing days in the 1960s – obviously nowhere near as laborious as this one, but nevertheless, she didn’t have a drier and that reference to the ‘wet cold sheet’ that ‘flaps in thy face abrupt’ was very evocative for me. So was the narrator’s bewilderment at being denied the usual attention from people who appear cross for reasons she doesn’t understand – there’s been nothing like having a family of my own for understanding why my mum was often so bad-tempered, particularly living as she did in an era when the amount of housework a woman did was somehow taken as a measure of her worth as a person. The rest of the post is great, too – thanks!

  4. What an enlightening review! I always learn so much from you, from textiles, the Scottish countryside, p.t., literature, and now period films — and more. I can understand why this movie irked you, justifiably so, and you’ve articulated it perfectly. Maybe Campion should hire you as a consultant in her next period film? I always look forward to your posts.

  5. This year I decided to read all the PBS/BBC/A&E miniseries books I’d always purposely avoided because of the way women gushed over the miniseries: that is things written by Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, etc.

    So far I’ve made my way through Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Emma, and about a third of Pride & Prejudice. With the exception of a small part of Emma, I’ve not seen any of the film adaptations and purposely so, for many of the reasons you mention in your first paragraph.

    It becomes so difficult to take literature on it’s own terms, when film and culture have told us so strongly that this is the way it is. The Wizard of Oz is a good example of something that takes the basic storyline, but loses most of the spirit of the original text.

    On a different note – I was embroidering in a coffee shop yesterday and a woman sitting across from me asked to see it. Her response was “That’s pretty – do you have a shop?” A phrase I get a lot of variations on when I craft in public. Nowadays it seems I run into more people who think one would only sew/knit/embroider/etc. for money than for the pure pleasure of it!

  6. Interesting. I recently committed myself to reading many of the classics – including Austen, the Brontës and Wilkie Collins (the Russian literature, Shakespeare and Ernest Hemingway are still waiting). Other than a bit of the recent BBC production of “Emma” I’ve never seen any of them – no, not even Colin Firth in his wet shirt :-) However, once I’d read “Pride and Prejudice” I bought the BBC DVD, partly for knitting-whilst-watching purposes and partly to see just how good an adaptation it is. I can sympathise with your despair with students – many people seem to equate mindlessly gawping at a TV screen with actually READING THE ORIGINAL. Which makes me sad.

    Although, I must admit I think Colin is rather tasty. But each to their own!

  7. Sadly, in my BA course in English language and literature, I actually had one horrendous professor who advised us to watch a movie adaptation of a novel rather than reading it. She was a terrible professor from day one, and this just confirmed it.

    I understand your frustration with the movie. I just went for a tour of Shakespeare’s Globe today and one of the people who was with me asked if I had seen “Shakespeare in Love” because it was her source of love for the man… I replied (somewhat arrogantly) that I had actually taken a year-long course on Shakespeare and I knew all the historical inaccuracies in that movie! I had to add, though, that the immature wide-eyed teenager in me does like the movie, just for the fun of it. I think I’ll see Bright Star as well, I want to see the fabulous costumes, even if they are inaccurate…

    Have a wonderful Sunday!

  8. Thanks for a lovely and stimulating post to have with my morning coffee. I generally avoid all those movies and it reinforces my choice. Haven’t seen it and I think that was the case because I was suspicious that it would lead in that direction. I’d rather listen to someone read Keat’s work, than watch a soap opera version of his life, but then I choose radio over movies and television.
    It seems that despite all your challenges that you are “off and running” in a sense and that is wonderful. Blessings on your week of continued movement in all senses of the word.

  9. Such a characteristically great post (a word that doesn’t really convey what you’ve created at all!). I followed the link to the poem, and reading it gave me the shivers. One more thing to add to the reading list!

  10. I have heard other similar reviews of Bright Star. I haven’t seen it but i think it is in my Netflix queue. I do enjoy your writing and I forgot for a moment that you are in physio recovering. i then thought that next time the nurses ask you to do a mind puzzle you should just have them read this. keeping you in thoughts, keep up the good work!

  11. Kate, I am niether a person well-read in literature or poetry or have I seen many of the films depicting, but I suppose I am sympathetic to the popularity of the visual affect in film these days. Your review of the movie really pointed something out to me; that in the modern age, we somewhat shallower working class people who populate most of the world, educated enough in anything other than literature & thought which it was meant to evoke, still, there seems a powerful thirst for the visual more than the depth, in such a modern world of ugly concrete cities and disrespectfully dressed people.

    I haven’t seen the movie, yet, but when I do I will be acutely aware of all that you so brilliantly point out. You’re a great writer and I have endless respect for you. The best thing is that you have been able to talk about something outside of your recent struggle ~ which I’m very impressed about !

    Your passion in textiles, in design & stitch, and the history of which it applies, has really helped me refine my own. I am grateful for you!

    Warm Embraces,
    ~Jen from California’s Mt. Veeder

  12. You should publish this brilliant review! (I appreciate that you’ve “published” it here, though, because I might not have found it elsewhere, and I greatly enjoyed hearing your thoughts! I’m just saying, as a fellow academic, that this is an excellent, insightful argument).

  13. The crocheted boleros you mention reminded me immediately of Sophie Digard’s creations (funny coincidence, they are available at Selvedge).

    There is often a gap between literature and cinema because the latter is a far more visual art. It is rare for me to visualize clearly the characters of a novel except if they are described in detail. A film on the other hand often does not leave much liberty for imagination, especially in our times where vision and looks are so important. After seeing a film the look of a personage is burnt on the retina and difficult to erase indeed…

    This was a fascinating blog post that made me actually think!

  14. What Jen said…Your review was very enlightening. However, being a visual person, I would love to see the movie just for the eye candy the photos previewed! Perhaps I shall rent it and turn off the sound and just wallow in the scenery. ;-)

  15. Oh thanks for giving med more reasons not to like the film.
    I went, loved the lovely pictures Champion painted but I did never get the love. Why did they fell in love?
    And for being swedish not knowing anything about Keats it is like you said, I know nothing more than that Keats fell in love with a young woman for no particulary reasons at all. Then he died.

  16. kate, wonderful review. i can’t speak from an historical understanding of textiles in fashion design, i can absolutely relate to your comments on the disjunctures in the film. in the film of the novel the time traveller’s wife, the wife who was a papermaker was seen making paper only once in a grubby (but photogenic) outbuilding. anyone involved in papermaking would cringe at the thought of such a filthy workspace. these attempts at authentication must cost plenty, and look pretty, but very much like selvedge they lack substance. and fall apart.

    good wishes on you continued recovery. remember the tortise. we have snapping turtles here, they can appear to be slow and lethargic, but can also move with speed and decision. may you become a snapper.

  17. I have some loose association in my head between Peter Greenaway and Jane Campion (looking them up, I see they use the same composer, which is not much of an actual association) but that mental association makes me assume that she’ll be mostly interested in the aesthetic possibilities rather than the historical accuracies. As an art student, I greatly enjoyed Greenaway’s films (he was a painter first, and we often had to watch his movies for his painterly compositions – constant, moving compositions that are so careful as to be as mannered as a Rembrandt) but as a nitpicky fan of historical literature and history, I find choices such as the ones you describe somewhat troubling.

    Film, in engaging so many senses while leaving the body idle, has a power to create the sense of reality without forcing the kind of brain activity that reading does, and its more visceral pull can take a place in the memory that reading does not. I do enjoy the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, but the book comes first for me, and I resent picturing Colin Firth or Jennifer Ehle when reading the book, more especially as I find Mr. Darcy interesting as a hero, but not particularly to my taste as a man. Liking the BBC adaptation places me in company with the squealing fan girls of Austen, and I’m enough of a snob to resent that. (An uneducated snob, but a snob nonetheless.)

    Your review is excellent, but I am saddened to learn that the promise of that verbal sparring is hollow. It would be interesting indeed to see a film about a woman whose attachment to the material is portrayed as strength. I often think about the wives of the great self sacrificing men of great deeds in films and books and am reminded of the poem Lot’s Wife by Kristine Batey when I read about men whose wives and daughters barely make a mention in the pages. It would be interesting to see a film about Mrs. Bell or Mrs. Beeton or one of the other women who aimed to be a businesswoman and an earner of money as well as a wife. (And there’s another woman, whose name I cannot seem to remember, nor instantly find, who ran a popular fashion house in London, who had an interesting story.)

    Sorry for the teal deer – I got all interested and excited in reading your post. Thank you.

  18. They leave the washing out in the rain in Joe Wrights 2005 Pride and Prejudice too… equally ridiculous, but it’s a very aesthetically motivated film so the dripping linens on the line served to emphasise the downpour key to Jane’s plot line. I’d never leave my washing out in the rain and I’ve got a washing machine – perhaps it’s the start of a new fashion in period film making!

  19. lovely post – your astute observations are what drew me to your blog in the beginning, and i admire how well you craft an argument (as well as a cardigan or jumper). i haven’t seen this film, and while i do enjoy adaptations of many classics as companion to knitting or needlework, nothing compares to the actual books, and i do tend to shy away from big studio productions for the very reasons you give (especially aesthetics over accuracy). incidentally, one of my father’s favorite films is _master and commander_ – in large part because of the painstaking attention given to historic accuracy in everything from the food served to the depiction of life in the british navy to the buttons on the uniforms. the struggles the director had making the film to exacting standards – without losing artistry or excitement – are fascinating.

  20. Now I have some reading to do! Thank you, Kate, for cultural commentary that sends me running to the reference section. And for giving the clichés about handwork a couple of good knocks on the chin. This post is a bookmarked keeper.

  21. Interesting. I haven’t seen the film yet, but now I must.

    Ironically, your take reminds me of my undergraduate school, Moore College of Art, which was founded in the 19th centry to enable women to earn a living in the textile and knitting mills of Philadelphia, PA.
    And, to keep them supplied with a trained workforce, of course.

    And, it’s still an all women’s college.

  22. I haven’t seen the film and don’t particularly want to, but I have to agree with you on the Colin Firth as Mr Darcy point. While I enjoy him very much in that production (pause for a moment), he is not Mr Darcy and the whole thing has been re-written as a soap opera/rom-com substitute. I find Dickens works quite well as a BBC serial,(he was a rabid amateur actor, but again so much has to be missed out that you aren’t even getting a quarter of the text.

    Thanks for your thoughtful and interesting post.

  23. And while Jane Campion may have been interesting at first, for a while now she has promised more than she delivers.

    I was probably the only person who didn’t like “The Piano” much.

  24. Thankyou, for pointing out something I’m ashamed I hadn’t articulated myself in the use of textiles. It never fails to amaze me how thoroghly we internalise sexism and perpetuate it, even those of us who are trying to work against it.

    I generally enjoyed watching the BBC P & P, but I found all the invented male only scenes frustrating. The director put them in because we never see the men in all male situations in the books, which I felt missed the point entirely that Jane Austen wasn’t privy to any all male situations and that focussing on women’s experiences and interpretations for the full length of the mini-series really would have been ok.

  25. You’ve put your finger on my feelings about Selvedge! I wish there was a lot more substance in there… I look forward to each issue then it takes no time at all to read so I’m left feeling a bit ripped off.

    I haven’t seen Bright Star, but I’m still looking forward to watching it :-)

  26. I shouldn’t be responding as I need to read this rich post many more times. But for myself I must say I do love the literature and resulting film adaptations of these periods, historical and literary accuracy be damned. Perhaps they actually stimulate people to read (or listen to ) Jane and peers, although probably not! It is good that there are so many adaptations…it’s always fascinating to view two different films of the same book and see what the producer chose to emphasize and how.

    That said, Emma Thompson and cast in Ang Lee’s production of Sense and Sensibility are without rival. Hope you’ve seen it…and would love to hear your comments relative.

    You know, they just should hire you as a consultant…though about marketing yourself!!??

    Wendy

  27. I’ve seen the film three times. I enjoyed Fanny’s assertion that she could make money from stitching. But it doesn’t bother me that Campion didn’t pursue that idea, because I don’t think Campion set out to make a film about the “uses of stitch” or ever intended to “disturb” any notions about fondness for textiles.

    I think she made a film about two young people who fell in love, one of whom was only a teenager and, like most teenagers, was sometimes a little flighty, sometimes a little silly, sometimes boastful (i.e., having read Milton), sometimes intense, sometimes self-absorbed, sometimes caring, and yes, sometimes dismissive of her little sister.

    But if Fanny were all that shallow, would she have given her heart to a sickly, disheveled, destitute poet? If she had little depth of character, no “hidden complexities,” wouldn’t she instead have attached herself to a more conventional, “better” prospect, of which it seemed there was no shortage at the dances she attended?

    Through the course of the film, I witnessed a teenager grow in emotional depth and inner strength. I don’t feel I entirely understood Fanny or Keats. But I don’t expect to. (I don’t even completely understand why I fell in love with the men I’ve loved.) Like Fanny and Keats (and, I think, Campion), I like mystery. A film is not a doctoral dissertation, thank goodness.

    With regard to Fanny’s “touching stuff” – well, so did Keats. I loved the scene when he climbed to the top of a flowering tree and lay in the branches facing the sky, “luxuriating” in the sensations of the moment.

  28. I have only recently discovered your blog – have devoured the archive (conveniently being sick for the last few days) and now comment for the first time to say – thank you so much for the Barbauld poem – it’s wonderful and reminds me of my pioneer grandmother’s accounts of washing day! Also, I do SO agree with you about Selvedge. Here in NZ it is insanely expensive so I only ever get if from the library and I’m always disappointed as the lovely froth of its undoubtedly gorgeous presentation melts away into almost nothing as I read each issue: it is pretty though. I haven’t seen Bright Star, so have little to add except that the general trend of your criticism of that movie also seems to apply to The Piano and Portrait of a Lady – it suggests SOMETHING – often through enormously appealing visuals – but there is surprisingly little substance – so yes, the comparison with Selvedge is apt. However – Campion’s early ‘Sweetie’ seems to me to have much more substance and is still worth seeing I think.

  29. Jane Campion should be so lucky to read your review and learn from her mistakes. This was a brilliant post. I was so hung up on the beauty of the film, I really enjoy how it looked, that I didn’t even care to think about the actual truths, or lack there of. Thank you for all the information.
    I enjoy your writing very much.

  30. Thanks for this Kate, I’m not much a film person, I like to read and devise the film in my head. But for your same reasons, I sometimes put a book down when it is not historically accurate, just ruins it for me. I expect people to do their research. So good to have a thought provoking post from you and glad you were able to share your thoughts with us again. Thanks.

  31. And I thought O Lucky Man! was your favourite film – some interesting textiles in that one but what about that shiny suit?

  32. Thank you for writing up a review that puts into words all of what I found dissatisfying about Bright Star but could not articulate it. Although I enjoy many of these literary adaptations because they are at minimum visually appealing (the same reason I like to watch nature documentaries while knitting), I was baffled by how this film was such empty an experience.

    It’s also great to have you writing your usual fascinating and insightful posts. I hope that recovery is becoming less of an energy drain.

  33. “Instead of wallowing in doomed romance, Brawne should have been bringing in the bloody washing.”

    <>

    That sums up far more of our story-telling (and storyless-telling) culture than just the fillum you’re reviewing. Too much wallow, not enough bringing in the washing.

  34. What Baba Yaga said… Definitely too much wallowing. I was fortunate to have read “Pride and Prejudice” in high school before I saw the BBC production with Elizabeth Garvey and David Rintoul
    (the first of many). Sometimes I think that book is becoming like “Dr. Who”. I like Colin Firth but Rintoul will always be “my Mr. Darcy”.

    Thank you so much for your critique. It’s very enjoyable to read something so well thought out and substantial which doesn’t make me want to watch the movie any less. Perhaps with a more educated eye.

  35. Reading your review, I had to say Yow! Kind of harsh for a movie I found so beautiful. But then with the reference to Selvedge, I saw your point. Beyond the visual wash of beauty, which still holds much value to me, there was no staying power. The film didn’t come to mind later, as the best ones do, and there is really nothing to go back to in an old copy of Selvedge. But, hey, have you seen the film “Sequins”? That is a good one, stitch-wise.

  36. It’s a pleasure to read such an intelligent, considered analysis of a film. I wonder whether you have considered turning your phenomenal powers of criticism on another recent film that, it seems to me, has a similar problem with style over substance: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. I found it a sumptuous visual experience, but I get annoyed with the constant praise of Burton’s “creativity” and “imagination” – I thought the design of the film, while beautifully executed, was intensely derivative, not just of other versions of Alice (which is fine) but of any number of fantasy worlds that have been blockbuster movies recently (LOTR, Harry Potter, Avatar). But the thing that I found really troubling, and I would love to hear your opinion on, was the ending, whereby the 19-year old Alice emerges from the rabbit hole, rejects her (ridiculous cariacature of an) aristocratic suitor, offends assorted genteel ladies and goes off to become a partner in a company and propose trade with China. The last shot in the film is of her standing on a ship’s deck wearing a masculine jacket setting off for the Far East. It seems like the two options for Victorian women are: madness/escape into a fantasy world, or taking on male characteristics, wearing male clothing, in fact becoming a man in a man’s world (and a capitalist imperialist), and the second of these is evidently the solution. I think this says something terribly sad about the poverty of Tim Burton’s vaunted “imagination” as well as about the lack of ways for women to be strong and fulfilled without having to use male models of strength (a related point: some reviewers have suggested that it represents ‘girl power’ for Alice to put on male armour and fight the Jabberwocky herself, but only if we accept individualistic male violence as the paradigmatic model of power).

    I’m sorry to go on a rant, but this film really bothered me, and I know that your combination of a literary approach, visual sensibility and sensitivity to feminist issues would produce an extremely enlightening review.

  37. Oh, and if you want to see sewing portrayed as empowering (albeit in the same violence=power paradigm), it’s quite fun watching the Mad Hatter taking the Knave of Hearts down with the contents of his millinery workshop…

  38. Hello, long time lurker, first time commenter. I completely agree with your assessment of the film. I wanted to see this movie based on the visually stunning trailer, but I also wondered why the movie had no critical buzz to it that complimented it. I’m usually very good at knowing if I like a movie or not, and in the end, it really is just a pretty movie. I did not feel for the characters, and while I like Ben Whishaw as a whole, I really didn’t like how it was all style and not a lot of substance. Yes, it does get away with it because it is very well shot. The acting is not too bad (it could be worse), but the dialogue is rather wooden and contrived. Like you, I was fascinated with the inclusion of textiles from the opening shot and Fanny’s interest in it, but it really wanes as her love affair goes on (which is understandable but I wanted to see more sewing haha). There are a lot of directors who have style and sometimes a rather empty script and plot. Tim Burton has been named. At the end of the day, if the director’s style is so good and the movie is at least one modium of entertaining (whether it be the actors who carry it e.g. Johnny Depp in some of Burton’s “failures”), then one doesn’t feel like you wasted an hour. I don’t regret watching Bright Star, but yeah, I did feel rather bored for most of it however pretty it was. Lovely blog, and am a fan of your designs. All the best on your recovery. Cheers.

  39. thanks for your observations on style in other centuries. I learned a bunch just now. I had no idea filmakers would not pay more attention to what they are putting out, at least when attempting to do a period piece.

  40. I enjoyed “Bright Star” in exactly the same way I enjoy “Selvedge” – it was a superb analogy! Both look wonderful in a loftily artistic kind of way, but neither actually deliver anything substantial. And I wholeheartedly agree about the washing. It bothered me too!

    But I do have to say the costumes were exquisite and I loved the anachronistic Sophie Digard items. Just like I do in Selvedge…

  41. Hello,

    I just read your review and having just watched the dvd of Bright Star, felt compelled to comment. I disagree entirely with your analysis:

    what we are being purveyed is mere cinematic candy floss. So this is a film that is both intellectually hollow and horribly otiose, but which stitches up the viewer simply by being visually persuasive.

    Campion was able to evoke the deep longing one feels for the “ineffable” in Bright Star — she shows it in several ways: through the artistry of Fanny’s sewing, Keats poetry, and their awakening love. Fanny was Keat’s equal as an artist, and it was her love of and skill in sewing as self-expression that enabled her to eventually recognize the beauty in his poetry — which required study on her part as she was not “skilled” in the written word. Keats talked of immersion in water and the corresponding sensations that one feels, not that one “intellectualizes” and I think Campion’s film allows us the same experience.

  42. Thank you for this excellent post, Kate. After watching the film, I felt dissatisfied and slightly peevish, the way I do after talking myself into eating something visually appealing but with no nutritional substance. You do an excellent job of articulating a sound feminist critique.

  43. I went to a Selvedge magazine screening of this film last night, complete with talks by the film’s embroiderer, Fanny’s sewing hand double and a costume designer for Keats House. During the pre-show talks, the editor of Selvedge referred to this blog post’s critiques of the costuming… so *someone’s* paying attention.

    Alas, I had to walk out of the film when after an hour and a half John and Fanny were still mooning around in the grass like Edward and Bella with no sign that anything was actually going to happen. Though visually beautiful, I found the film dull, precious and light on content — more like a series of spreads from an aspirational magazine than an actual story. As you said, this is also the problem with Selvedge occasionally… there’s only so many exquisitely overexposed shots of a single quail’s egg cradled in an antique teaspoon on a distressed farmhouse table I can look at before thinking, “And this cost more than a copy of Pale Fire?”

    Also, this:

    Instead of wallowing in doomed romance, Brawne should have been bringing in the bloody washing

    basically sums up everything I dislike about period England films made by people who treat history as fantasy.

  44. PS Have you seen Fran Lebowitz on why Jane Austen is popular (in America, at least) for mostly the wrong reasons?

    “If you’re really a truth-teller, you’d better be funny, because otherwise they will kill you. That’s why [Jane Austen] is funny.”

  45. Hooray! You hit the nail on the head! As a former film student I had a lot of trouble with this film too – mostly the lack of substance. I also found a missed oportunity with the representation of Fanny. I saw the film with my mum and daughter – both crafters and seamstresses – and they were horrified with the lack of industry shown by her and the indulgence of wasted time. Not something a stitcher has time for! Great review.

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