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By Jimmy Thomson in Cannes:
The movie “luvvies” adore her but opinions on Jane Campion’s new film Bright Star are seriously divided at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with even fellow screen professionals hopping in with acid comments.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Jane Campion movie has just ended,” intoned Usual Suspects star Kevin Pollak at 11 am the morning after Bright Star’s gala performance. “Correction, the Jane Campion movie is still running,” he later told a press conference for his new film Middle Men. “John Keats is not dead yet.”

Amid glowing if not gushing praise, it was one of many disparaging reactions to Campion’s movie about the ill-starred love affair between 19th Century romantic poet John Keats and his next door neighbour, with many detractors claiming the film was self-indulgent, if visually sumptuous, and slow.

The first signs of discontent came at the early morning Press screening of Bright Star. As the final scene faded to black, the obligatory applause was muted although Campion’s screen credit was more warmly received – suggesting that the Cannes audience love her but not necessarily her latest work.

"beautiful cinematography... slow pace"

In a straw poll immediately after the screening, some praised its beautiful cinematography and stunning scenes set in English countryside around London; others bemoaned its slow pace and “insubstantial” story.

“I hadn’t realised Keats was actually bored to death,” said Harry from Austria. “It was yet more style over substance,” said cinephile Jessica from England. “It’s not good enough for Jane Campion to stop everything so we can look at one of her gorgeously lit scenes,” said an American critic. “She still has to tell a story.”

That said, there were just as many others who loved it: “It looked fabulous,” said film fan Marguerita from Italy and another said it was “sublime”. They are in good company. The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw says this may be the best movie of Campion’s career.

Almost everyone agreed, however, that Abbie Cornish (Somersault, Candy) was outstanding in the role of poet John Keats’ lover Fanny and Britain’s Ben Whishaw (Perfume) acquitted himself well enough as the poet.

"a serious contender"

Criticism aside, Bright Star is a serious contender for the Palme d’Or which Campion won 16 years ago (and is still the only female director to do so) but that may be because of a lack of serious challengers. The Disney 3D animation, Up, is not in competition although Fish Tank, a modest UK dysfunctional family film, is creating a real buzz as is Thirst, a Korean vampire film, Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-violent Inglourious Basterds and China’s Spring Fever.

Australian journalists were denied access to interviews with Campion but at a press conference after the film she admitted she’s nervous about the reaction to her latest work. “Last night, when it got past midnight and I went to check the print, I must say I felt butterflies,” she said in Cannes. “I was really excited and fearful.”

She said she’d stumbled across the story of Keats and Fanny and was captivated by their romance, brought to life in his poetry and letters. “The history of these two characters so caught me unawares, with a story so enchanting and so painful, I found it had endless fascination,” she said.

With the movie being released around the world later this year, only time will tell whether film fans will be quite so beguiled. Bright Star is running second in the Screen magazine unofficial critics poll (with an average of 3.3 out of four) behind the movie A Prophet (3.4), mainly thanks to one critic who gave Bright Star one star when all the others gave three or four.

Published May 19, 2009

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Abbie Cornish in Bright Star




Jane Campion
(Photo by Jimmy Thomson)

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