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 .
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.