Skip to content
Bright Star director Jane Campion is the champion of period pieces
It happens every time filmmaker Jane Campion makes a "period piece." The director of The Portrait of a Lady, The Piano and the new 1820s-set drama Bright Star is thrown by the very costumes that she has decreed those starring in her "costume drama" must wear.
"Trips me up, every time, "she says. "After spending weeks of rehearsing the cast, developing this trust with them and they've found the reality of their characters in just in their regular clothes, they suddenly arrive on set in these outfits, looking like Beatrix Potter characters! 'Who ARE these people? Where's Peter Rabbit?'."
Campion, 55, hates that term, by the way -- "period piece." And don't get her started on that accompanying genre-defining "Austen-esque." She sees herself as a director of contemporary stories that happen to take place in earlier times.
"It's both alienating and intriguing, this idea that the past is very different," she says. The reason she loves filming the past -- her In the Cut and Holy Smoke have modern settings -- "is the research. I just love it. You do a contemporary film and you think you've already done your research. But in a way, that life we live in contemporary times is unexamined. So research you do into, say, the 1820s makes you pay attention to everything that surrounds your characters. Some things don't exist anymore, some you've have to build. Every piece of paper, every article of clothing, is different."
The writer-director may be, as The New York Times characterized her, "one of modern cinema's great explorers of female sexuality" whose latest "literate, lyrical love story" (Rolling Stone) is certainly not her first. But the native New Zealander felt she was in over her head on Bright Star. "I had a mental problem, an aversion to poetry," she says, laughing. "It goes back decades. It makes me feel stupid. But I thought, 'Oh come on, Grow up! Read a biography, for God's sake. Get a little context and do this thing.'."
She had a notion of doing something on the Romantic poets. She felt her way through biographies until she found the story of "their angel, the one who died youngest, John Keats." And in Keats (played by Ben Whishaw in Bright Star), she found a true tragic hero -- a man who had a great love affair, one that inspired one of his most famous poems, but a love that social circumstance blocked at every turn.
"This last three years of his life, he'd fallen in love with his neighbor, Fanny Brawne [ Abbie Cornish in the film]. I had no idea how intense this love story was, about the letters that documented it. Those 33 letters take you right to the heart of this great love affair. I was moved deeply by the tragedy of it all."
Campion's film, she hopes, shows just how modern this couple from almost 200 years ago was, how contemporary Keats himself is to our times -- notwithstanding the "Austen-esque" settings and costumes.
"The Romantics were called 'romantics' because they were rebels against the status quo in a pretty important way," Campion says. "At that time, life and love itself were so unfair, so removed from what we know today. Every advantage went to the upper classes. Society was very staid. You couldn't marry for love. Money meant everything. Many people left England because they felt they didn't have a chance there.
"These poets were speaking out and acting out against that. They were saying 'There's one set of laws, society's laws, and then there's my gut, my instinct.' And these poets said, 'There's more important things to worry about than etiquette, class, rituals.' That's why they seem so modern. That's why we respond to them today."
Roger Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5369.