“…a tailored concept, a piece of cloth, a strip of celluloid…” –Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (1)
The event of a thread (2)
Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009) opens with a black screen. A silver nub nudges into frame. The eye grasps after the glint, grapples to identify its source. Out of the velvety blur, it recognizes a needle in extreme close-up, set in a sliver-thin depth of field. A thrumming filament of thread is pulled taut behind it. The subject emerges slowly into perception. Then, against the uniformly dense black page of the film screen, two words in white ink unreel in the cursive script of an unseen hand: “Bright Star.” From the onset, letter and stitch are juxtaposed. Light angles its way in through a pinprick, tripping on the head of a pin. The tip of a blurred finger appears, looming uncommonly close, as the stuff of the world rarely does.
The next shot involves an adjustment of scale. It suggests a miniature landscape of low, snow-blanketed hills. The eye settles into the diminutive realm as the needle noses through a swathe of cloth. The focus is so sharp that the individual fibers of cotton thread are visible, as are the fabric’s woof and weft, and its infinitesimally fine flocking. The needle meets a bit of resistance and then draws the thread through. Its point pierces the textile again and again. The gaze plunges headlong with it into a material world existing at the fingertips. The camera angle gently cants as the loops are tugged snug, one after another, into a seam.
The camera withdraws a few inches more, revealing the extraordinary degree of magnification experienced in the first few seconds of the film. The dizzied gaze settles upon a piece of fine white muslin, smoothed flat against a firm surface. An exacting triple-stitched seam cuts a diagonal through the frame, leaving a flurry of tiny gathers behind. The slight irregularities in the stitches cause little puckers. The tiny peculiarities and hesitations register the work of a particular hand. The fingers that now appear at the furthermost edges of the frame, Fanny’s, are sensitized to a high degree of nuance. The director’s attention matches hers, stitch by stitch, in its care and rigor. And Campion harkens a gaze that is vigilant.
The film theorist Vivian Sobchack’s writing on Campion’s film work insists on the corporeally-invested experience of film. She describes her response to the opening of Campion’s The Piano (1993), not dissimilar from the first frames of Bright Star:
Despite my ‘almost blindness,’ the ‘unrecognizable blur,’ the resistance of the image to my eyes, my fingers knew what I was looking at…my fingers comprehended that image, grasped it with a nearly imperceptible tingle of attention and anticipation and, off-screen, ‘felt themselves’ as a potentiality in the subjective situation figured on-screen. (Sobchack, “What My Fingers Knew”)
Bright Star emblematizes touch in repeated images of hands and the things they hold—pens, pins, needles, flowers, small gifts. The film’s brimming sensorium beckons us to grapple along its surfaces with what trans-media theorist Eva Hayward has so extraordinarily termed “fingeryeyes” (3). Campion calls upon film theory attentive to affect, surface, and sensation. Laura U. Marks, for example, put into film theory and practice a manner of seeing informed by the sense of touch, “haptic visuality.” distinct from historically predominate “optic visuality.” The terms have their source in art history. Just before the turn of the Twentieth Century, the art historian Aloïs Riegl had his nose right at the nap of the Persian carpets, the objects of his study. With vision tangled up in tiny intricacies, he found himself lacking a term that would account for such willful near-sightedness. This impelled him to draw a distinction between two modes of vision—optic visuality that operates from a distance; haptic visuality, right up-close. The two modes function not in mutual exclusion, but along a continuum. For Marks, they extend toward hearing, scent, and taste.
Two more modes of perception warrant attention in specific relation to Bright Star. In Gilles Deleuze’s theory of bodily intensities, color possesses the force to “give us eyes all over.” (Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, 57). Bright Star is a chromatic panoply. Additionally, attendant to the sensory and affective manners of approach to film, many stemming from Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, is the proprioceptive sense that orients the body in space. Bright Star is emplaced in most particular ways.
Now the camera pulls out dramatically. Cool early light creeps into a spare, small room. Fanny Brawne, age eighteen, is at the window in white bedclothes working at the peaks of a van Dyke collar. The hushed genre scene resembles those in paintings that proliferate into the Romantic era. A triangular shape pokes into the corner of the frame. The camera follows it and finds Toots, age nine, sitting up in bed. She watches in the particular way that a little sister does her big one. Toots pulls the bedclothes tighter to her chin. The hair escaping her bonnet is a shock of copper. We are cocooned with the sisters in this warming room. Little doubt exists that in Bright Star women’s handiwork and their private domestic spaces will be given pride of place.
Campion takes a restrained approach to the genre of period drama and achieves a subtle, understated strain of feminism, uncommon in her oeuvre. If Bright Star is sometimes passed over as her “small” film, its very attention to diminutive realms lends it its power. Close-up views and humble interior spaces are used extensively. They effectively circumscribe the film’s intricacies and intimacies. Bright Star tells a tragic love story, carrying Romantic tropes into our present. But to embrace or dismiss the film as conventional narrative melodrama overshadows the quieter revolutions that occur in the Regency-Era domestic sphere. They occur amongst family members and between friends in rooms that hold them near and determine their gestures and dramatic trajectories. The characters–and by extension, the viewers–are repeatedly pleated into the surfaces and spaces of the film—into books, letters, clothes, well-tended houses, and pastoral landscapes.
A rush of cold air as the door opens: the Brawne’s are leaving Elm Cottage, going out to tea. The head of household, Mrs. Brawne, leads Toots, Fanny, and a brother, the ever-watchful Samuel, twelve or thirteen, lagging just behind. The smart clothes on Samuel’s lanky frame, including a straw top hat and a silk scarf, serve as reminder that the Brawne’s are kin to the Brummel’s. The family makes its way through lines of hanging white linens that flap and snap in the brisk wind. Laundry women work. Two geese keep company with brown chickens. A bird’s eye view reveals the entirety of the small world in which the film unfolds. Only a handful of shots like this in the film suggest a traditional perspectival gaze, the optic gaze—distancing, mastering, objectifying. When an establishing shot such as this is necessary, it is gently subverted. In this case, the frame is static. The camera’s eye does not hunt or give chase, but maintains a filmic patience. The Brawne’s thread through the field of vision. Then the camera pulls out further to offer a wider view of Hampstead Heath, London, in 1818. Bleaching rectangles of cloth lie atop hillside brush like blank pages. To the left, in the distance, the cityscape of London is just visible.
The landscape’s palette is muted—mud brown, fading green of dry-grass, and dusty brick. The sky is flat gray. Fanny brightens the view in the way that a flash of red does a plain robin. She sports her newly finished white blouse with the peaked Cavalier collar. Over it she wears a scarlet Spencer jacket closed at the front with a double row of buffed metal buttons. As the family approaches Wentworth Place, she turns with a swing of the handcrafted barrel-beaded purse at her wrist and reveals a corded fillip finishing the jacket’s back. The outfit is topped with a high bonnet in pink, ornamented with shivering yellow feathers–and a single emerald green one that takes a discerning eye to spot. In such setting, Fanny is “a maiden most unmeek.”
The Dilke’s own and occupy half of Wentworth Place and their quarters are more posh than Elm Cottage. Throughout the film the Dilke’s represent the voices of bourgeois propriety. They appear most frequently in parlors. The other half of Wentworth House is rented to the obstreperous Scottish writer, Charles Armitage Brown. Bright Star is a film about comings and goings. This is the first momentous arrival.
“Shall I give thee Miss Brawne?”
Upon entry, Brown greets Fanny with the line: “Ah, the very well-stitched little Miss Brawne, in all of her detail.” Fanny is flush-cheeked, but undaunted. He reaches out, but she refuses to shake hands “with the enemy.” He continues to needle her “obsession with flounce and cross-stitch.” Against Brown’s protest, she delivers tea to the guest staying in his rooms. She walks down a dark hallway, through a doorframe, then steps into window light. The depth of field is fairly narrow and fixed in the middle ground so that she walks into focus. This strategy is used repeatedly for interior scenes. It has the effect of imparting characters with agency. The gaze is made to wait, to yearn a bit. Fanny stops briefly at a mirror to preen a bit and to smooth her skirt. We note again the intricacy of the collar with its white specks of flocking. She knocks. The door opens abruptly and she falls into her falls into her fate. The room is lined in dark wood. He sits in a tufted tan chair, fingering a book small enough for a tiny pocket. He is disheveled, rather delicate, and wears a threadbare jacket. Fanny suggests he’d do better with blue velvet. This is the first peek at the poet John Keats.
Brown, in his awkwardly-fitting plaid vest and trousers, bursts in: “Men’s room, men’s room! Out, thank you. Poets writing.” Fanny lobs back: “My stitching has more merit and admirers than your two scribblings put together.” A beat. “And I can make money from it.” The key conflicts have been announced: sewing/writing, pinning/pining, work of the hand/work of the mind, industry/indolence, female/male, and male. Hearts flutter, tempers simmer, and pulses quicken. John Keats is played by Ben Wishaw and Fanny Brawne by Abigail Cornish. Bright Star is their story—and that of the Scottish writer Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider). But mostly, it belongs to Fanny.
Until recently, history has been hard on Fanny Brawne. Many of those who wrote about Keats in the Nineteenth Century vilified her. She was considered a destructive distraction to Keats. In fact, the poet was most productive in the three-year period between late 1818 and early 1821 when they were involved. Some of the most tenacious protectors of the poet’s myth went so far as to suggest that the anguish and exhaustion caused by the love affair were responsible for his early death. In fact, the cause was tuberculosis. When Keats’ letters to Brawne were published in 1878, the Victorians perceived them as scandalous, sullying the dear poet’s memory. The misperceptions began to fade in 1936 when Fanny’s kind letters to Keats’ sister were published. Shortly following upon this came the sympathetic biography by Joanna Richardson in 1952. Fanny Brawne wore widow’s robes for several years after John Keats death, married very late for time, and never removed the garnet engagement ring he had given her.
For over a hundred years she existed as she appears in the silhouette portrait Auguste Edouart cut of her in 1829—as thin as a fashion plate, an obscure mar on the legend of the esteemed poet, John Keats. Into this dark, inscrutable shape Jane Campion conjured Bright Star’s luminous Fanny, insistent not to let Brawne play Euridice to Keats’ Orpheus. Campion based the story, in part, on Andrew Motion’s 1998 biography of Keats, which devotes a good amount of space to the poet’s relationship with Brawne. Motion came on as an advisor for Bright Star. Equally important in drafting the script were the thirty-seven existing letters and notes that Keats wrote to Brawne. Campion perhaps went too easy on Keats, whose letters vacillated dramatically between complete devotion to Fanny and demonization of her (thus giving biographers the option to choose between the two). Keats’s mother and his sister were named Fanny, as well. His feelings toward Fanny Brawne were amorous, familial, and fraught.
KEATS: I don’t think I have the right feeling towards women. I’m suspicious of my feelings.
FANNY: I don’t understand you.
KEATS: If you knew what a slave to my affections I fear myself to be, and the fury it brings about in me, you might understand.
FANNY: Do you not like me?
KEATS: I am attracted without knowing why, all women confuse me, even my mother. I yearn to be ruined by shrews and saved by angels and in reality, I have only ever loved my sister.
FANNY: I am annoyed by my sister as often as I love her. (Bright Star dialogue)
Most of Brawne’s letters to Keats have been lost or were destroyed. Keats’ was too heartsick to open the very last few. They were placed with him in his coffin.
John Keats’ death mask
Campion’s project set out to reclaim Fanny Brawne. Art historian Griselda Pollock underlined the importance of such endeavors when she wrote in 1988 that “to perceive women’s specificity is to analyse historically a particular configuration of difference” (Pollock, Visions of Difference, 78). No doubt, Campion is a 1980s feminist at heart. Some might consider Bright Star to be dulling of Campion’s political edge, wishing her Fanny were more of bluestocking. While the film certainly represents the reclamation of a particularly creative woman, Campion took the risk of re-inscribing the binary between the naturalized, material form of women’s work (sewing, fashion) in marked opposition to the “masculine” work of meaning-making (writing poetry). Nevertheless, in ways both gentle and bold, the film complicates and works to loosen the grip of the gender binary and the social strictures that defined the Regency Age. Campion’s telling is generous and reparative. She redresses Keats’ legend—to the chagrin of a few eminent Keats’ scholars. Christopher Ricks’ review, “Undermining Keats,” raises the loudest protest to the film and holds fast to the spirit of Keats’ early biographers: “Bright Star respects Fanny Brawne…But the film does not respect John Keats, in that it does not respect his writing.” He rails against “the condescending granting of pictorial assistance to words that were designed to stand in no need from a sister art.”
Back at Elm Cottage, in her light-filled room, we look with Fanny rather than at her, at the work in her lap. She holds in the very tips of her fingers a slip of the most diaphanous fabric imaginable. Again she is stitching, attaching a collar with tiny, complicated pleats to a shimmering garment of taupe silk. The camera pulls back and we see her at this precise work, patiently pulling a small needle through and back and through and back, marking time. Then she stands at the mirror admiring her elaborately flounced ruff with satisfaction. Mirrors are used frequently in the first part of the film, but the conceit disappears as Brawne becomes something more than a “Minxstress.”
The siblings arrive. They sit on the bed with Fanny. In close-up, Toots’ little hands unknot the twine and unfold the brown paper parcel that contains Keats’ ill-reviewed Endymion. Fanny places the flat of her hand against the book and holds it there for a moment. She turns back to her tailoring, while Toots reads: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness.”
The next scene, a sparkling candlelit ball, dazzles the viewer set down at its midst. The camerawork effectively achieves this by framing shots such that other party guests appear out of focus in the foreground plane. They obstruct sight lines. Other breathing bodies stand nearby and brush shoulders. The potentially objectifying gaze is interrupted, having to work its way to find Fanny among the dancers. Once oriented, we are alongside the poet at the wall. Fanny sends her natty brother to tell Keats that she wants to speak to him. She waits for him in front of an elaborately ornamented gilded mirror. Again we look at her looking at herself, in full radiance. Keats appears. When Fanny turns, we see all of her artistry—front and back. Again and again, Campion insists on the importance of Fanny’s sartorial self-fashioning. She is wearing the taupe silk dress. It is cut in Empire style, cinched high at the waist. Her gloves are elbow-length and lilac-colored. Her elaborately arranged hair is ornamented with butterflies. And there it is: the ecru triple-pleated mushroom collar of her own invention, as she informs Keats. Each of the many surfaces appears “accompanied by its adjectives,” as Barthes writes of the objects in Dutch still life painting (Barthes, 64). They are bodied forth right at the film’s skin. Keats asks Fanny whether she has read Endymion. She pauses. He asks if she is afraid to speak freely. She confidently replies: “Never.”
“Observe on the surface of skin, the changing, shimmering, fleeting soul, the blazing, striated, tinted, streaked, striped, many-colored, mottled, cloudy, star-studded, bedizened, variegated, torrential, swirling soul.” –Michel Serres, The Five Senses, 23
The scene shifts with a scissor snap. We watch from the threshold of the Brawne’s kitchen to observe as Fanny cuts a gold ribbon to tie up a basket of sweet lemon wafers, a gift for John’s dying brother Tom Keats. Moments later, the Brawne children arrive at Wentworth Place with the parcel. The camera is positioned inside the room looking out through a door pane, fixing a rectangle of bright light. Fanny walks into it. She wears a long crimson coat with another elaborate bonnet, white with open weave and with a soft bow of plaid grosgrain ribbon. The perspective shifts to the other side of the window frame. Fanny looks into the dark room, its sounds tamped by heavy carpets and thickly upholstered furniture. Keats is dozing on the well-worn leather couch and Brown is sprawled on the floor. Poets at work. The angle shifts back and forth, inside out, outside in. The camerawork weaves this world together. Brown eventually invites the Brawne’s in. They stand at the threshold of Tom’s sickroom (and we are there with them). Keats comforts his dying brother Tom tenderly. The air is thick with the smell of death. Toots wants to go.
The Brawne’s arrive at Wentworth House again later, this time for a dinner party that the Dilke’s host. Over-the-shoulder shots place the viewer among the attendees. Fanny wears a sapphire silk cape with ivory piping. She removes it to reveal a claret-colored dress, sloped at the shoulders, with wisp-sheer sleeves and cut low at the neckline. (The Regency Era was particularly focused on the bosom). Fanny meets the Reynolds sisters, twinned in matching white satin gowns. Fanny gathers substance in contrast to their frivolity. Her colors echo Keats’ melancholy. The rooms are stifling with artifice, cluttered with brocades, portrait paintings, and tureens. These settings are the exacting work of Campion’s costume designer Janet Patterson, who served as the film’s production designer, as well. Interior settings like the Dilke’s parlor are intended to contrast the simple light-filled interiors of the Brawne home. Each setting is fit to Fanny’s fashion.
The Regency Era saw the loosening of corsets. In her distinct garments, “houses” of her own self-fashioning, Fanny is comfortable in her skin, an agent in her own determination. She is completely herself in all of her sometimes sumptuous, sometimes simple sartorial grace. Patterson speaks of her fondness for the character: “For me, Fanny was the kind of girl with an instinct for her own nerve and beauty. She’s able to pull off this experimental stage of expression.” Fabrics hold our affection for and attention to Fanny in the folds of their pleats. Additionally, the changing costumes materially manifest Fanny’s character arc.
Fanny Brawne was indeed a student of fashion. She created scrapbooks filled with carefully selected magazine fashion plates from the age of twelve onward. Patterson drew heavily from them in her costume designs. Fanny sketched dresses in her journals and in the letters she wrote to Keats’ sister to accompany her fashion advice. She knew a great deal about the history of costuming and was a connoisseur of textile and notions. She had a hand for haberdashery. Style may be dismissed as frippery (Brown most adamantly takes this stance); but in Fanny’s artful hands it is spun from her keen intelligence.
At home, Fanny’s dresses are characterized by a natural, understated elegance. She wears pastel-colored muslin shifts in which she is radiant. Toots mirrors this. Fanny’s sewing is also a practical expression of care for her siblings. Those who grew up in a household with a seamstress, know that leftover fabric means that a little replica tailored to a child is likely to appear. Toots often wears smaller versions of Fanny’s dresses.
“Seamstress mistress distress stress” –Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois, A l’infini, 2008
Fanny wears a petal pink, cotton plissé dress with a lightly starched ruffle collar; its sleeves are tied off with narrow satin ribbons in intervals down her arms. A valentine arrives—in jest, from Brown. Mother and housemaid are downstairs watching out the window as an agitated Keats paces back and forth in the rain, consumed by jealousy. Fanny goes out to him and Brown bounds into frame. Keats believes they are betraying him. Fanny’s wet collar droops. In scenes of heightened emotion, a handheld camera provides an active tremor. The cameraperson’s hand reaches shakily into the screen.
After this rattling of emotion come a few halcyon scenes. At a riverside picnic, Keats and Fanny steal a rare private moment. Flowering crab-apple trees embower them. They hide behind a screen of susurrating, wheat-colored reeds to steal their first embarrassed kisses. Fanny wears a bright cherry-colored Spencer jacket with white pin stripes. Chromatic vibrations modulate between hot pink and succulent peach. This might have been the moment Keats was thinking of when he wrote: “Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine—good God how fine. It went down soft, pulpy, slushy, oozy—all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry” (Selected Letters of John Keats, 356).
In a scene that Fanny described in a letter to Keats’ sister as the happiest time of her life, Keats joins the Brawne family for Christmas dinner. Doorframes and thresholds settle us into the house by the fire, alongside Keats, who pets the loudly purring cat, Topper. Fanny wears a brown velvet vest edged with gold, catching light. It low neckline is chastened by a double chemisette of sheer silk. She’s polishing glinting glasses. The couple flirts. Fanny tells Keats to look for a pinprick drawing of a fairy princess behind his bed. Toots bring in warm buns. Keats charms the entire family with a jig. He reads a few lines of a poem: “When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face, / Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance…” When the others leave the room, Keats takes Fanny’s hand. Keats’ never gets under Fanny’s clothes: a finger merely lingers achingly at a wrist, the full force of passion is diffused by an airy bit of silk.
Bright Star is not driven by plot. It lingers. The film features vignettes nested in the larger story. This metaphor of nesting, enveloping what is dear, can be extended to the Brawne family home. Camera technique follows these cues: “vignette shots,” which mask a portion of the frame, are employed quite frequently, primarily in the scenes that occur outdoors, but nearby—in the garden, on the health. With a locked frame, a narrow plane of focus is fixed in the middle ground. This causes foreground and background planes to blur around the image’s horizon, effectively folding the vision into a hinged field.
This effect occurs in film’s signature scene in which Fanny leaves her room to read a letter from Keats. Fanny wears an amethyst-colored dress. The field she steps into is carpeted with lavender-tinged bluebells. The foreground and background planes smudge around Fanny, gathering the viewer’s attention up into the scene, into the natural beauty that pervades Romantic poetry. A single branch of green leaves above her catches the sunlight, dappling it impressionistically. The delicate scent of fading violets seems to waft in. She reads: “I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” (Selected Letters of John Keats, 356). Keats marked his letters to Fanny with a seal that read “mark’d with my mother’s initial, F for Fanny.” Amorous, familial, and fraught.
Back inside, Brawne replies to Keats’ letter: “I have begun a butterfly farm in my bedroom in honour of us. Sammy and Toots are catching them for me. Samuel has made a science of it and is collecting both caterpillars and chrysalises so we may have them fluttering about us a week or more.” And Campion conjures a truly wondrous vignette: butterflies flutter around Fanny’s room (and us)—their wings throwing off phosphorescent blues and luminescent yellows. Jars with fork-pricked-parchment tops line the windowsills. The hothouse garden is both domestic and exotic. (Entomologists have noted that not all of these butterflies are native to Hampstead).
Mrs. Brawne enters and tries to open a window. Toots protests, “They love the heat!” A few days later, a lovesick still life appears: the scraps of a torn-up letter lie in a corner of the room among dead and dying butterflies. Cut to a very dark black.
“Even more immediately than other perceptual systems, it seems, the sense of touch makes nonsense out of any dualistic understanding of agency and passivity; to touch is always already to reach out, to fondle, to heft, to tap, or to enfold, and always also to understand other people or natural forces as having effectually done so before oneself, if only in the making of the textured object.” –Eve Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 14
Late in the film, Keats tells Fanny that “touch has a memory.” Campion not only insists on haptic visuality, she also literally figures the sense of touch in the recurring motif of hands. The camera repeatedly dwells on them in close-up. The characters’ hands act as the viewers’ prostheses reaching toward their embodied memories. Hands nudge the story along. Gifts pass from hand to hand—wrapped, beribboned, untwined, and held. Hands weave a web of both familial and romantic love. Brown cavalierly wipes his sticky hands on the crisp, clean apron of the Irish housemaid after eating one of her “scones as good as a swan.” Flowers and geese are plucked. Fanny stitches, Campion cuts and edits, suturing scene by scene into the fabric of film. By means of touch, Campion—like a latter day Saint Lucy—holds eyes in her palm of her hand.
Maria Dilke arrives in the Brawne’s parlor to deliver the news that Keats’ brother Tom has died. Fanny runs upstairs in distress. She rips a length of ivory silk and she begins to mend. Mrs. Brawne comes in to console her daughter. Not a word is spoken. She sits on the bed near Fanny, picks up the fabric and begins aligning its two layers and pinning them together. Fanny’s hands come into close focus. The focus then shifts to her mother’s hands. The women are joined by this length of white cloth. In its simplicity, this is one of the most moving scenes in the film.
The following day Keats and Brown call to receive condolences. Toots hands Keats a parcel from Fanny that is wrapped in black linen. As powerful a communication as any poem is what has been tucked inside: a pillowslip to rest his brother’s head upon. On it, she has embroidered in silvery, pale green a solitary tree lit up by few scattered stars in the sky. Toots whispers to Keats: “she sewed it all night long.”
Later in the film Fanny’s red coat smolders against the gray sky as she walks with Keats on the heath. He gives her his mother’s gold-scrolled garnet ring. Moments later, Mrs. Dilke (in the parlor) tells Fanny that it would be for the best to forget the ailing, impoverished poet. Mrs. Dilke spots the ring. Fanny insists that it is not an engagement ring because she doesn’t wear it on her ring finger but “on the one next door.” She raises her hand and shows her. In effect, she gives Mrs. Dilke, with her moral judgment, “the finger.” The gesture tears a little rip in the social fabric. Fanny turns to her mother and says, “You taught me to love not only the rich, not only a thimbleful.”
Pens and needles
“Watching a raw material become a single thread, join other thread to become a warp or weft of a cloth or carpet holds for me all the possibilities for making; sewing and writing are for me two parts of the same hand.” –-Ann Hamilton
Outside the Brawne home, Keats climbs a blossoming plum tree chasing after a nightingale’s nest; he is backlit in a rush of light from the setting sun. He settles in atop its flowering branches. When Keats returns to the poets’ lair, Brown tells him wholeheartedly: “Your writing is the finest thing in my life.” He takes his hand.
Later Keats has taken a chair out into the garden and sits, framed by the low mossy branches of a plum tree. Fanny watches him for a moment from her window. His quill scratches ink onto pages in a small notebook. We peek at him from inside a different room—from Brown’s perspective. Next we see Fanny inside the house darning by the window. The film cuts back and forth between Keats and Fanny at their parallel tasks; it cuts, as well, back and forth between points of view–Brawne’s, Brown’s, and our own. Fanny gets up to look for Keats again, his chair is empty. Back in Brown’s rooms, the two writers are piecing scraps of a poem together: “Ode to a Nightingale.”
In this short series of scenes, attention follows the tips of needles and the nubs of pens. The hand that sews and the hand that writes have historically been held apart by a stubborn gender dichotomy, attended by the further distinction made between craft and art. This takes powerful metaphorical form in the most iconic moment of Bright Star. Near the midpoint of the film, the Dilke’s move away and the Brawne’s move from Elm Cottage into the other half of Wentworth Place. The two lovers are separated by an interior wall. They are in close proximity, yet achingly distant. Keats knocks on the wall tentatively. He places his palms flat on upon it, holds them there. On her side of the wall Fanny does the same. Their gestures rhyme, but they do not touch. The wall concretizes a fixed gender binary. It is also a two-sided screen for the characters’ love and longing. And yet, the whitewashed wall holds all the possibility of a blank page or a strip of white cloth.
Stitches and sentences are the products of twinned and tangled efforts. Writing and sewing are both forms of handiwork, relying upon similar gestures and rhythms that loop to and fro to leave tangible marks. Both involve an intimate involvement with material, whether paper and ink, or cotton and silk. Dextrous hands have their various ways of knowing, and ways of expressing what they know. Fanny’s stitched seam, like Keats’s sentence, ends with a point. Knotting, tying off the threads, is a form of punctuation. The director’s focus on hands at work up-close destabilizes the habitual ways particular types of mark- and meaning-making have been valued or devalued on the basis of gender. By tipping the balance toward “women’s work”—embroidery, sewing, seam-making, hemming, crocheting, mending, darning—Campion insists on the importance of the domestic sphere as a site of creative production.
A House Leaking Light (4)
“And still she slept in azure-lidded sleep, in blanched linen, smooth and lavender-d.” –John Keats, “The Eve of St. Agnes”
The argument has been made repeatedly that women throughout much of history have been constrained by domestic architecture. Campion’s film might be said to re-enforce this; however, the critical place that the Brawne home holds in Bright Star suggests the possibility of a different reading. Fanny is repeatedly shown in the luminous bedroom she shares with Toots, at the open window. A gauzy curtain billows toward her letting in a rush of air and limpid light. The house respires. The house leaks light.
Moreover, like the women of the house, the camera weaves the fabric of Wentworth Place shuttling inside and out again and again. The film cuts to wild blush-pink roses shot at low angle. Then through a frame filled with poppies shot from an even lower angle, we spot Toots and realize we have been looking through her eyes. The camera angle shifts. Gazes proliferate. We are in the kitchen with Mrs. Brawne, Brown, and the housemaid looking out to see that Keats and Fanny are in the garden with Toots. Samuel explains: “They are sniffing every flower in the garden to find the best scent.” This line can be read as a statement of the Bright Star’s aesthetic, an unswerving attention to nuance and brimming with sensation. This scene’s colors can barely be contained. The next thing that happens is a wonderful surprise: the housemaid, observing the performance in the garden, gets off the best line in this film about poetry (and one that Gertrude Stein would admire): “Mr. Keats is being a bee.”
We are slow to notice the way that the camera is constantly mapping the topography of the garden and measuring the shape of this two-halved house. It registers movements through gates and hallway passages, up and down staircases, and over thresholds. Shots of doors and windows multiply as arrivals and departures do. Space holds close, but is not restrictive. We are tucked into the pleats of the place. That cherished house has come to be known as Keats House. That it is not known as Brawne House is reminder of one of the many ways that women’s work in the home has been erased through history. In Bright Star, Campion projects onto the walls of that house a story that reclaims the value of the domestic realm.
Keats returns to Wentworth Place one last time only to leave for Rome, a climate more apt to sooth his difficulty breathing–or so insist his friends, a cadre of male poets. The joyful Christmas dinner is replayed as a dirge. Fanny wears blood-dark maroon. Keats signs books as gifts for the family. The kind Mrs. Brawne tells him, “Come live with us. Marry our Fanny.” Fanny and Keats cut locks of their hair and tuck them into tiny envelopes. Saying their harrowing goodbyes they comfort themselves by imagining their future living together in a small house in the countryside with a fruit orchard and a garden alive with every type of wildflower. Fanny is quick to add: it should be “close to Mama.” The world they conjure is the very world they have inhabited since the story began.
“The unit of lace is the thread, but the unit of lace is also the open space…Within the pattern is the absence, and it is the repetition of absence after absence that, ultimately, makes the thing complete.” –Natalie Shapero, habitus ann hamilton, 167
The penultimate scene is another lifted from domestic genre painting. Our gazes are now fully stitched into the seams of the house and woe to leave it. The family is seated around the fire. Fanny is doing needlework. Toots strokes Topper in her lap. Brown enters in great distress, bringing news of Keats’ death. The scene cuts to a shot of Keats’ funeral cortege—the pall bearers, the hearse–at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The scene is a steely, cold monochrome in black and gray. Fanny gasps in torment and falls to her kneels at the bottom of the winding staircase. She will not find her way back to that light and air filled room.
And then she is back there sewing in foundering light. The camera comes in close to register stitches on the white muslin lining widow’s weeds. Fanny reaches for the scissors and cuts the last errant thread. She stands before the mirror and cuts her hair with cruel rasps of pinking shears. She goes downstairs, opens the front door, and once again becomes a flat black silhouette against the gray mist. Samuel follow at a watchful distance behind her, like Keats’ shade; this brother, too, would die a year later. Fanny walks along the heath into the night reciting the poem Keats wrote for her, “Bright Star.” When the poem ends, Keats’ ghost picks up the dropped thread of verse and recites “Ode to a Nightingale” in its entirety as the credits roll. As they end, sound drops away. Then Keat’s bare disembodied voice speaks the poem’s last lines, “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music: Do I wake or sleep?”
Those final words sting doubly as the heart-wrenching end of Fanny Brawne’s and John Keats’ story and as the description of the disorientation that arrives with the end of a film. When the cinematic gaze is released, the awakening body resists relinquishing the haptic rush of sensation; it fumbles in the dark. It yearns for the warmth of the place that flickered on a wall. The cinema, too, is a house that leaks light.
The phrase used in the title, “the difference between a sentence and a sewn,” is Gertrude Stein’s in How to Write.
(1) Giuliana Bruno’s scholarly work with its sustained attention to the meaningful surfaces of fabric, screen, and architectural space is a key source here.
(2) The phrase, “the event of a thread” refers to the title of an installation piece by visual artist Ann Hamilton from 2012. Thyrza Nichols Goodeve describes another of Hamilton’s installations, habitus (2016), in this way: “Over all habitus is a paean to cloth and language as ‘capacities’ (Hamilton’s word) of physical, mental, social absorption and immersion, where each touches our body, becomes our surround. It is about the history of textiles and text; of the hand that sews and the hand that holds the book.” See “‘What Forms of Making Might Spin the Stories We Need to Lift Ourselves from the Distractions of the Immediate?’ Ann Hamilton with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve.”
Ann Hamilton, Habitus, 2016
(3) Other modes of vision offer access to other sensory realms. Film has extraordinary potential to explore them. Peculiar creatures with greater capacities stir in the optical unconscious. Eva Hayward, thinking between marine biology and film, has written about the vision of sea inhabitants, including cup coral and brittlestars—possessing powers of sensation more finely calibrated than those of human beings. Hayward coined the term “fingeryeyes” for such enviable entanglements of tentacular perception.
(4) This phrase is Campion’s from the director’s notes.
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