TIFF #3: Reel People

September 12, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's not unusual for a festival to showcase period pieces providing semi-fictionalized accounts of famous people's lives. This year brings three such high-profile productions to Toronto. Those are Bright Star, Jane Campion's autopsy of the tragic romance between poet John Keats and his next-door neighbor, Fanny Brawne; John Amiel's Creation, about Charles Darwin; and Jean-Marc Vallée's The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt as the Queen of England. I won't be posting comments about The Young Victoria - it's the festival's closing film and will not screen until long after I have made the 10-hour drive back home. However, I have a few things to write about the other two…

Bright Star concerns the latter years of poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), who died in 1821 at the age of 25. Toward the end of his life, Keats was involved in a turbulent love affair with his next-door neighbor, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), and that forms the background of a romance that would have delighted Keats' contemporary, Jane Austen (who died only a few years before Keats). Indeed, whether intentionally or not, there are times when writer/director Jane Campion's story seems inspired by Austen, at least in the way that Fanny is presented.

Bright Star stays true to the facts, at least insofar as they are known. Obviously, artistic liberties are taken, but the basic story matches what history has left us in the form of Keats' letters and poems and Fanny's correspondence with Keats' sister. (Fanny's letters to Keats were destroyed upon his death, as he requested.) There's enough material here for a solid, heartfelt period love story - it may not make viewers swoon the way a good Jane Austen adaptation might, but it's well enough made to deliver an emotional impact.

The film, which is primarily told from Fanny's viewpoint (whenever the lovers are separated, it stays with Fanny), begins where one would expect all good love stories to begin: with the meeting. Initially, Fanny and Keats are not well-matched. She is obsessed by fashion; he is a writer who agonizes over negative critical reaction to his published works. They spar for a while, egged on by Keats' friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), who loves nothing so much as antagonizing Fanny, whom he views as superficial. Eventually, Fanny and Keats are drawn to each other, much to the distress of Brown. Although Fanny's mother (Kerry Fox) is liberal when it comes to her daughter's happiness, the prospect of a marriage between Fanny and Keats does not sit well with her because he is in debt and does not have good prospects. However, when he develops tuberculosis (the disease that killed his mother and brother), the likelihood of any kind of future looks bleak.

Beginning to end, this is Abbie Cornish's motion picture, and the strength of her performance goes a long way toward selling the romance. Her co-star, Ben Whishaw, does an adequate job representing Keats as a poet tormented by love, poverty, and physical illness, but Whishaw rarely emerges from Cornish's shadow. Bright Star has a limited target audience: those who enjoy historically-based romances. The film isn't going to win many converts from outside that circle but, for what it is, it's a better-than-average effort. Campion, who has handled racy material in the past, keeps things prim-and-proper for this story; there is eroticism, but it's of the subtle kind: lips brushing in stolen kisses, hands touching fleetingly. There are also samplings of Keats, although possibly not enough to satisfy a true devotee. Bright Star is a nice ode to the poet, the love of his life, and the period in which he lived.

Creation arrived in Toronto accompanied by all the pomp and circumstance that typically greets an Opening Night gala. Stars Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly were on hand, as was director John Amiel, and the festival pulled out the stops in giving this production the full red carpet treatment. The good news is that Creation represents the best Opening Night feature Toronto has shown in years. The bad news is that's not saying much. This is a perfectly acceptable bio-pic, although it follows a "safe" and uncontroversial trajectory. The disappointment is that the film does so little with the rich and complex subject matter of science versus religion. It's in the movie, but is often relegated to the level of a plot point.

Charles Darwin is universally recognized as the "Father of Evolution" - a position that has led to him being lauded in the scientific community and reviled in some religious circles. His authorship of On the Origin of Species has made him a controversial figure. However, although much is known about his most famous book, far less is known about his personal life and the factors that led him on the path that resulted in the 1859 publication of the landmark volume. Creation attempts to tell the story behind the book.

Two relationships figure heavily in the fabric of Creation - that of Darwin (Bettany) and his deeply religious wife, Emma (Connelly), and that of Darwin and his oldest daughter, Annie (Martha West), who dies at age nine. Annie's death, the result of an illness that was mistreated by doctors, provides the catalyst for Darwin's loss of belief in God. It's not something that occurs overnight; as he puts it, "The loss of religious faith is a slow and fragile process." His newly adopted atheism places a strain on his marriage. Emma sees Darwin as being on the different side of a battlefield and no longer desires to share her bed with the man who has "killed God."

Amiel's approach to the material is straightforward, although his overreliance on flashbacks occasionally thwarts dramatic momentum. He presents the interaction between Darwin and Annie with great sensitivity, with both Bettany and newcomer Martha West breathing life and intimacy into this relationship. Less successful is the director's chronicling of the marital strife of the Darwins. Emma is presented as being cold and largely unsympathetic, and the resolution smacks of contrivance. Things come together a little too smoothly at the end.

The surprise of Creation is how little the storyline focuses on Darwin's theories and the firestorm created by them in both the religious and scientific communities. These elements are in the movie - as when Darwin tells Annie the story of Jenny the orangutan or when two visitors urge Darwin to publish to give science a major victory over religion - but they are peripheral. Creation ends up feeling like a classic historical biopic with occasional extraneous elements to differentiate Darwin from many others who lived through family loss during the same time period. As films go, it's agreeable if a little bland; however, there's more potential in Darwin's story than what is represented on screen in Amiel's telling.

Before concluding today's update, I want to say a few words about what is easily the worst film I have seen over the course of the last few Toronto film festivals: Jennifer's Body. Rather than regurgitating large portions of the review, which will be available in a few days, let me tease it by saying there is no excuse for something this badly made to be accepted by any festival, even if it is part of the Midnight Madness category. The movie is a poor excuse for horror, teen angst, and comedy. The filmmakers don't understand horror and it shows in every frame. Star Megan Fox proves that Michael Bay understood her limitations when he elected to use her exclusively as eye candy. And, when it comes to exploitation elements, the movie doesn't skimp on the gore, but is a PG-13 with T&A. Those expecting another quirky, witty screenplay from Diablo Cody are in for an unpleasant surprise. Even an untrained ear will pick up Cody's strained attempts to re-create what worked in Juno. If I wanted to find something to praise about Jennifer's Body, it would be the acting of Amanda Seyfried, who comes across unscathed, which seems virtually impossible considering the way everything around her is imploding. I'm hoping for something more worthy of her talents early next week with Chloe. And it's not just me who hates this film. I have spoken to a couple of horror experts about Jennifer's Body, and their loathing of it may exceed mine.

The trailers for Bright Star, Creation and Jennifer's Body: