Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bright Star: An Ode to a Seamstress

Toots Brawne and her sister, Fanny, the fiance of the great English poet John Keats.

Bright Star is a film no one who loves sewing could not love, and for good reason, it has been nominated for an Oscar in costume design. The film opens with zoom-in shots of a needle passing through fabric. Unlike the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice, which used embroidery only as a backdrop in the credits, this sewing is carried throughout the film. Fanny Brawne, the fiance of John Keats, according to the film, was a seamstress and designed and made all of her clothes. Throughout Bright Star, we see Fanny and then her little sister, Toots, doing their hand sewing and embroidery--in good times and bad.

The film is a beautifully photographed period piece about the friendship and then love between Fanny and Mr. Keats--with precise and nuanced acting by all actors and the recitation of poetry in a way that seems perfectly natural and not affected. Jane Campion's movie is to be praised as pointing people in the direction of Keats' works and the story of Keats himself.

Despite the fact that Keats' friends were apparently hostile to Fanny, Campion assumes, and I imagine rightly, that if Keats' love for Fanny had enabled him to write again, it could not have been bad. By focusing in on Fanny's love of beauty through her craft of sewing, we can see that she has a temperament that was attracted to and receptive to his. This temperament in Fanny is drawn out when, upon hearing of the death of Keats' beloved brother, Tom, she races upstairs to her bedroom to make a pillow slip for Keats, embroidered with a highly detailed and gorgeous bare-leaved tree, and enclosed is what seems to be a linen envelope with ribbon. "She was up all night sewing it," Toots tells Keats proudly. At another point when Fanny decides to bring Keats some biscuits, she carefully arranges the package with ribbon and cloth, explaining to her mother, "Anything that goes to Mr. Keats must be perfect." "Perfect" is an adjective that is often on her mind.

Naming her film after Keats' beautiful love poem to Fanny Brawne, Bright Star, I think Ms. Campion's consciously tried to craft the film as a poem of visuals. Scene after scene simply takes your breath away with the beauty of its coloration and composition--a metaphor for the Keats and Fanny's love of beauty and each other.

The costuming contributes to this effect. I do not really care for the empire style of Regency era clothes or how they are presented in most movies, at least. In this film, there is no decollatage, as Fanny wears delicately made blouses over empire jumpers in ensembles of color that go perfectly with Abbie Cornish's coloring. The effect, scene after scene, is stunning and the reliance on diaphanous materials for sleeves, ribbons, and curtains points to the mood of delicacy and sensitivity Keats waited for to create his poetry.

Another feature that endeared this film to me are Fanny's younger siblings, Sam, and Toots. And here we see that the whole Brawne family, including Fanny's widowed mother, cared deeply for John Keats. The presence of Toots--marvelously played by Edie Martin--acts as a grace note,a lyrical poem in itself against the backdrop of the unfolding tragedy of love and loss.

Bright Star is a celebration of poetry and sewing--two genres that appear be anachronistic in today's post-modern world but, it seems, many yearn for.

P.S. See Jane Austen's World for a post on the white embroidery we see in Bright Star.

Also, you may want to see these two other "sewing" movies, Broderies, and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. I reviewed them here.


Jodi said...

My husband and I saw this film when it came out in the theatre. The cinematography was stunning. We've since watched it three times on NetFlix. It's special to us because our eldest daughter resembles Fanny and our youngest has been called Toots since she was a baby.

Linda said...

Then this must be a very special movie for you--that's wonderful. I will be seeing this movie a lot, I think. I just liked everyone in it, and I really like the relationship between Fanny and Toots. Not having had a sister--younger or older--I was envious. I enjoy your blog so much. Thank you!

Jodi said...

Thank you, Linda, I enjoy reading your blog as well. :-) Happy Monday!

Nan said...

I'm looking forward to seeing this, though not a sewer, even of buttons. :<) I recently wrote in my blog about the lack of seamstresses in my area. Tom and I visited Keats' house when we were in our twenties. A wonderful place.

Gigi said...

Oh, I love "Bright Star"!. It's enchanting & incredibly lovely, isn't it?
I've posted about it a couple of times also: (, and I was just going to order it from Amazon as I must return the one I have to Netflix ^v^.

Linda said...

Gigi, Thanks for your comment. I visited your blog and really enjoyed it. Also admire your beautiful knitting. I am addicted to this movie and after watching it incessantly for a week, I sent it back to Netflix and am now looking for it again. I want to drink in every detail. All the best.