Monday, March 29, 2010

Two Little Sisters

It has occurred to me that the films Atonement and Bright Star mirror each other in many ways. Both center on the doomed relationship between two young women and their unsuitable lovers, although John Keats and Fanny Brawne's relationship was never consummated. In both, a sub-theme is the relationship between an older sister and a younger sister, and the younger girl's growing awareness of the relationship between her sister and lover. Both of the young girls love the older sister's beloved.

But the similarity stops there, as the characters of the two younger sisters are nearly opposites. Briony in Atonement is controlling, curious almost to the point of prurience, which is partially understandable in a girl thirteen, but also highly suspicious. Her mis-apprehensions and her willfulness lead her to actions that are not-so-inadvertently destructive.

Toots, in Bright Star, is a sweetheart, and as I listen to this movie while I am ironing or knitting, I always pause to watch her every line. I could eat her with a spoon. Far from standing outside and judging wrongly, she helps her sister, most poignantly when she hands Fanny the pillowcase to give John Keats upon the death of the poet's brother. "She stayed up all night sewing it," Toots proudly tells Mr. Keats.

The contrast between these two girls matches the differences in their home life. The fathers are absent; in Atonement, he is held up in London by work; in Bright Star he is deceased. The difference is with the mothers.

Mrs. Brawne is intimately involved with the lives of her daughters. She is readily at hand, with sympathy but also cautioning. Mrs. Brawne insists that her children "stick together," as Toots chides Fanny. They take dance lessons together. Toots and Fanny sew together. The family visits friends together; the children go for walks together. The Brawne family lives a shared life.

In this ambiance, Fanny and Toots understand and trust each other. In one scene Toots asks Fanny to "check her stitching," but a love-sick Fanny grumpily shoos her away with harsh words: "No. I don't give a damn for your stitching, Toots!" Toots patiently walks back outside, sits down on the stoop, and resumes her sewing. She is secure enough in her sister's love to feel disappointment but not insecurity and not anger. She knows that when Fanny feels better, she will be loving again--as happens. And Fanny brings Toots into her relationship with Mr. Keats. When Toots goes a-searching for Fanny when the two lovers are lying in a wood, they hear her voice, get up, make themselves known, and follow her out. But they play a charming game with her during this walk--a reassurance to the younger girl that she is within their circle of love.

Atonement opens with Briony searching--up and down and all around and down to the servants in the kitchen--for her mother in the family's English country house. Briony wants her mother to read the play she has just authored to celebrate her brother Leon's visit home from university. Briony basks in her mother's sincere praise. Next we see Briony and her older sister Cecilia lying on the lawn talking, with Briony asking questions and Cecilia answering evasively.

Later, when Briony intrudes on the lovers--first by reading the letter and then interrupting their love making in the library--Cecilia recovers herself and stalks out of the room, leaving her stricken younger sister to her own devices. No reassurances here. Except for dinner that evening, Briony's mother is out of sight, lying upstairs with a headache. Each person in the family goes their own way--Briony, on her own and alone, spins her dramatic fantasies. My heart goes out to her.


Tessa said...

Lovely comparison. Do you think there's any significance in the fact that Briony becomes a writer (and a successful one at that)? The character is damaged but very tough, almost murderously so, and perhaps the implication is that that's what it takes for a woman in that era to "make it." Whereas Toots seems destined for domestic happiness but not, perhaps, for greatness in a larger sphere, precisely because of her appealing softness. Or am I just projecting?

Nan said...

I haven't seen either one but you brought them alive in this beautiful posting. Thank you. I so enjoyed it.

emilyatheart said...

I adored Bright Star. I loved the way Fanny sewed and made such lovely fashions for herself. And yes, the sisters' love was wonderful to behold. I loved the way you put that Keats and Fanny show Toots she is within their "circle of love". I wonder if Fanny ever married after Keat's death. What a tender film. Thank you for your post.


Linda said...

Thanks very much for your kind comment. Fanny passed several years in mourning for Mr. Keats but eventually married a man 12 years younger than she, by whom she had three children. She kept her letters from John Keats and on her deathbed gave them to her son. Her own letters to Keats are lost.