I watched a lovely movie last night, Bright Star, the story of Fanny Brawne’s love affair with the poet John Keats. More than a historical romance, this was a work of visual and emotional art that celebrated deep immersion in the sensory world.
I give this movie my highest rating – 5 stars. It’s not a rating I give lightly; there are only a handful of movies that ever earned it.
As a sensory defensive adult, movies are more likely to offend my senses than to delight them.
I cannot bear the physical torture of sizzling my synapses with dizzying, flashing, odd-angled, relentless motion and startling, ear drum-splitting sound that are common in current day popular movies.
Also, I avoid traumatic topics and grizzly scenes the same way a normal person would avoid the business end of a stun gun. If I accidentally encounter one, I experience pain, require healing time and am sometimes emotionally scarred. I could take a couple of hours and recite to you all of the scenes in all of the movies that have haunted me since I first witnessed them. I am not going to because I prefer to keep them chained safely in the basement.
Back to Bright Star…
SPOILER ALERT! (If you are unfamiliar with the story of Keats and prefer to have the end of the movie come as a surprise, read the rest of this review after you watch the movie.)
The inner drama of chaste 19th century romantic love was externalized in brilliantly sensual words, scenery, ritual and minute visual detail. Yet the scenes that moved me most were the interactions between Fanny Brawne and her mother.
Fanny’s mother, Joy, moved me to tears more than once. I found her part exquisitely poignant from two opposing perspectives: as a grown exceptional child myself, and as the mother of exceptional children grown to adulthood. (By exceptional here, I mean outside of the ordinary; uncommon, unusual or unexpected.)
It is every mother’s job to mold her child into the norms of her society. To what limit do we enforce that and at what point do we surrender to the reality that our child cannot be anything other than the exceptional person she is?
The elder Brawne’s struggle as a mother was taut and disciplined, (I read one critic describe it as ‘distracted’ – she could have hardly been further from the truth). Quietly, Joy resonated the maternal scale from frustration to mortal dread, yet she harmonized every scene with stoic love.
I’ll get back to her…
If you are highly sensitive, buy this movie because, like any experience of intense sensory beauty, you will wish to savor it, then revisit it to pick at the rich underlying layers.
It would also be useful for the neuro-typical who might wish to glimpse into the world of a highly sensitive loved one.
The visuals, emotions and characters in Bright Star are colorful and intense. In perfect counterbalance the action moves at a contemplative and nuanced pace. Exactly the pace a sensitive person must move to avoid drowning in her own experience.
DISCLAIMER: If you are a sensational person of the under-sensitive or sensory-seeking variety, you might want to watch this movie while bouncing on your thera-ball. There are feisty exchanges between Fanny Brawne and “Mr. Brown,” Keats benefactor, good friend and roommate. Brown is about as emotionally mature as John Belushi in Animal House. His frustrated, but poetic, need to have Keats’ all to himself causes him to make an idiot of himself on more than one occasion. This smattering of comic relief makes the celibate, yet steamy, romantic tension between Keats and Brawne all the more dramatic.
But if you need explosions or car chases to keep you focused, you may find the pace boring beyond frustration. Maybe you could use this movie as a sleep aid. Mixed with a high-dose of melatonin, you could be down for the count.
Enough about you…
The visuals in Bright Star begin with macro footage of thread thrusting through the eye of Fanny’s embroidery needle. With this thimble-eye view, you see the threads of woven fabric part to make way for the piercing needle. You almost feel the vibration as the imperfect length of thread pulls through fabric as stitch after perfect stitch lines up on the screen.
One of the underlying parables of the story is that to open to immersion in the senses, you cannot help but also be immersed in the world of emotion.
Although clever and spirited, Fanny Brawne – in the beginning is as proper and literal as her tight and perfect stitches.
Early in the budding romance she tells Keats, “I don’t know how to work out a poem.”
Keats contemplates her dilemma at length and finally replies, “The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not ‘work the lake out’. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”
Brawne does jump into the proverbial lake. She is immersed in sensation and emotion, open to the tiniest flutter of a butterfly’s wing. Consumed with emotion she swings wildly between expansive love and suicidal despair. Yet, she moves decorously through the 1818 English landscape of middle class garden and hearth. Except to her family, she seems in step with the world, yet she inhabits it at a completely different frequency.
Isn’t this the experience of every hyper-sensitive person – forcing ourselves to appear ordinary while a maelstrom of sensation churns within us?
Back to the mother…
Fanny learns of John Keats’ death, near the end of the movie, in a cozy fireside scene. Fanny sits with her mother and younger brother and sister while Mr. Brown, acting appropriately for once in his life, reads the telegram describing Keats’ death.
You see Brawne stiffen as though erecting a wall between the words and her heart. Brave, stoic, she seems the model of nineteenth century emotional discipline. But then, the wall wavers and trembles. She raises her hand, tells Brown to “stop” and storms from the room.
She only makes it to the bottom of the staircase before emotion catches up to her.
Grief takes hold. She struggles to stifle it in the same physically stuttering way Keats stifled his tubercular coughs. But the grief, like the illness that finally consumed Keats, overwhelms her.
Fanny drops to her knees and bends around the pain. And in her attempt to contain it, she cannot breathe.
She calls out, in choked panic, to her mother who rushes to her in a rustle of stiff Regency-era skirts.
Joy lowers to the floor in front of her gasping daughter, takes her by the arms, and presses her forehead to Fanny’s. In deep exaggerated breaths, she inhales and exhales. She, in effect, performs emotional CPR until her daughter’s breath regulates, and the grief can gush out of her.
It was the most moving scene. I weep unabashedly with its memory but not for the death of Keats, or for the despair of Brawne.
I weep at the perfect physical depiction of emotional deliverance.
It was everything – in a time of excruciating need – that one could want from her mother, and everything one could hope to give to her child.