If the gifted are smart, and not just gifted, they learn from experience its one great lesson: They learn the power of restraint. On the ice, the star player takes fewer strides to reach the same goal. At the keyboards, the jazz pianist hits fewer notes to get the same effect. And behind the camera, the talented director uses fewer tricks to create the same tension.
Jane Campion has always been a talented director. That was clear from her earliest work, in shorts such as Peel, then features such as Sweetie and An Angel at My Table and, most famously, The Piano .
Now, in her mid-50s, Campion has made a film, Bright Star , that is simultaneously a brave extension of, and a radical departure from, everything she's done before. The destination is identical, yet experience has taught her a starkly different way of getting there.
Campion's entire canon has been devoted to strong and intelligent women snared in conflicted circumstances, and nothing's changed here.
Although Bright Star is a romance involving the Romantic poet John Keats, the love story unfolds not from the perspective of the celebrated man, but through the eyes of the unheralded woman - a girl, really, 18-year old Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
Their affair is intensely felt yet never consummated, confined on all sides by the proprieties of the time, by Keats's failing health, and by his relative impoverishment. The consequent discrepancy, between feeling so much and doing so little, gives the film its purity and its poignancy. And that's because the very restraint imposed upon the lovers is embraced by the director - stylistically, she makes a virtue of necessity.
Inevitably, perhaps, her new style is borrowed from an old master: "I was watching Robert Bresson's films, Mouchette and [ Diary of a ] Country Priest , and I saw how powerful the classical style can be. It was very tense and yet he used none of the usual filmic techniques to create it. He just has a very restrained approach. After that, I got kind of sick of directors' signatures and whizzing cameras. It just felt empty and wasn't giving me anything very subtle. It's a sort of ego-lessness that you have to go through to take your signature off a piece. The job of the young artist is to be crazy, challenging, provocative, exploitative; but as you mature, you're trying to disappear into the heart of something, and that's what's exciting."
Let me interrupt her here to point out a tiny irony: Campion is unrestrained in her praise of restraint. A tall woman, sturdy, with long fine blond hair and blue eyes, pale yet piercing too, she speaks with great passion, radiating authority without a hint of self-importance. Better yet, she has a wonderful laugh, a big laugh that bursts out at unexpected times, instantly changing the conversational mood from sombre to silly. Like when we're talking about Keats's death from consumption in Rome, coughing up blood, lying on a narrow bed in that cramped apartment above the Spanish Steps.
"I cried when I visited that room," she begins. "But did you look up at the ceiling? It has carved daisies. And Keats, who could be very witty, said to Severn, the painter who was nursing him, 'I can already see the flowers growing over me.' " Big laugh.
She continues: "And I'm a little thick, but I was reading Andrew Motion's biography, and in one of his last letters Keats boasts, 'I'm still riding the little pony,' and I'd never heard that euphemism before so I thought, oh, even at that stage in his illness, he's actually going out riding." Bigger laugh, and then, just in case I'm a little thick too, "Not wanking, but 'Riding the little pony.' It's very sweet, isn't it?"
Don't expect to see that pony on screen, but the sweetness is definitely there. And so is Keats's vaunted theory of "negative capability," albeit filtered through Campion's cinematic sensibilities. "Yes, that was really helpful to me. I don't know if I understand negative capability correctly, but I think it's like a Buddhist idea that you can inhabit a space of mystery without searching after reason, that the desire of the mind to know, to work everything out, is a kind of low thinking. The muses are waiting for your mind to shut up. And that changed my approach to the cast."
"For example, we didn't rehearse this in the normal way. I didn't like the idea of doing a big period-piece bio, so we were already working against the fact that we had costumes on. It was quite a challenge for some members of the cast to feel that they didn't have to present a character, but just to slip into that quiet space. It was uncomfortable for them. They were getting grumpy. I'd see them doing stuff, I could see the gears turning, and I'd look at it and think, 'I'm so not interested in what you're doing. Can you stop? Can you just stop ?' They were scared at times, but it was weirdly inside me that I just couldn't react to anything fake. 'When you stop acting,' I said, 'I'll look.' It's such a relief when screen actors don't act."
For Campion, then, the notion of negative capability became another lesson in the value of restraint. Of course, less isn't always more. Sometimes, it's not nearly enough, which brings us to the question: Why are there so few women directing feature films?
"Hilariously, they're calling this the year of the woman director. But how many are there? 10? Look, I think of myself as a filmmaker first, and appreciate that many men are as sensitive as women. But, to your larger question, it's really about the fact that men still rule the world. That isn't what interests me as a director, but it's a fact. They do."
Okay, but women have made significant inroads into other professions, so why not movie-making?
"There's … an equal number of women and boys in film schools, and girls do very well there making short films. But as soon as that's over, it's like, 'Okay, end of equality.' Men control the halls of power, especially in Hollywood, and that's impenetrable. It's a boys' club. The frustrating thing is that half the people in the world want scripts that speak to them, and they aren't getting them."
No laugh now, and no restraint either. Indeed, this closing argument casts her film in a more ambiguous light. Bright Star speaks eloquently to women and men alike - that makes it an exceptionally good movie, and a happy cause for celebration. But Bright Star is also written and directed by a woman from a woman's point of view - that makes it an exceptionally rare movie, and a lingering cause for concern.
Bright Star is now playing in Vancouver. It opens in Toronto and Ottawa tomorrow.