Preview: Bright Star

It was enough for Jane Campion just to turn up at the Off Plus Camera Festival this year to win Cracovians over. This had little to do with whether or not people were delirious about her directing style. For in a week marked by national mourning and the pandemonium caused by Iceland’s volcanic eruption, scores of guests were stopped in their tracks. But Campion was happy to jump into a car from Rome, making the journey to Krakow in breakneck speed.

“They say all roads lead to Rome,” she quipped. “But for me it was the other way round. All roads lead from Rome – to Krakow.”

The New Zealand director, who first made a splash with Oscar-nominated hit The Piano (1993), had no trouble charming the locals. But one senses that she would have done so regardless of the circumstances. Although known for making films that veer into the arty-farty realm, in person Campion is a gloriously merry presence, happy to laugh at herself, telling the festival crowd that she could have made it to Krakow even quicker if she hadn’t had to keep stopping “to go to the toilet”. On being asked to plunge her hands into a platter of plaster for Krakow’s Avenue of Stars, she gets such a fit of hysterics that she has the whole audience in stitches.

Campion was here to receive the “Against the Current” award, given to directors who have stuck to their vision of independent-minded cinema. A retrospective of her work was screened, but she also had an opportunity to promote her latest film, Bright Star.

The new picture focuses on the doomed love affair between English Romantic poet John Keats and well-to-do damsel Fanny Brawne. In the Romantic pantheon, Keats has endured as the “angel of the group” – he died young, and in the director’s words, “he didn’t have time to mess up.”

Nevertheless, Campion happily admits that she’s no connoisseur of poetry: “I love literature, I love novels,” she enthuses. “I can now say I love poetry. But before, I didn’t understand it.

“In fact, I was actually quite terrified by it,” she adds, before breaking into another of her deep, belly laughs.

The director says that above all she was disarmed by Keats’ love-lettters, which have survived to this day: “I was struck by Keats’ extreme expression of emotion, but also his honesty. I can’t imagine what it would be like to receive letters like that aged 18.”

Speaking of the couple, she says that they both “had a passion for the truth.” Yet prior to the courtship, Miss Brawne would “never have imagined marrying a poor poet.”

Campion worked with a lot of young talent in the film, echoing the ages of the protagonists. Even the composer and the cinematographer were relatively fresh faces. “It seemed right to trust young people in this film” she affirms.

“Directing is about listening sensitively and having the courage to lose control,” Campion concludes. “If you always have control, you never learn anything. So it’s a kind of riddle.”

Bright Star goes on general release on 14 May.

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