Ah, consumption. That most romantic and cinematic of slow fades. Think Camille. Two wildly talented love objects with fatally bad lungs compete for this particular smackdown crown. It’s Frederic Chopin versus Bright Star John Keats in a death-baiting battle of ill-fated geniuses, fighting for every breath, playing fast and loose with history, and winning lovely lady hearts as they struggle for ours. I dare you to find two more gorgeous grandees, two saintlier objects of obsession in all filmdom. Go ahead. I’ll wait here.
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Twenty-three year-old Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) falls ever so gradually and ever so predictably for playing-hard-to-get girl next door Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) in a decidedly unglamorous 1818 London. They fight at first, they read poetry, and then they fall into mutual romantic obsession and platonic passion on the fringes of photogenic poverty in Jane Campion’s lushly photographed idyll to doomed love.
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The Defending Champion
Judy Davis’ unconventionally dreamy cross-dresser George Sand pursues deliciously delicate Hugh Grant’s Frederic Chopin all the way from Paris to the country estate of loopy Duchess D’Antan (Emma Thompson) in director James Lapine’s lovely romantic romp through 1830’s France. Chopin friend and rival Franz Liszt (Julian Sand) brings his lusty baby mama (Bernadette Peters) along for the bumpy ride, providing plenty of romantic and comic possibilities. With all the trappings of a lush period costume drama, “Impromptu” adds lively elements of soap opera, historical drama, bedroom farce, and gorgeous classical music to the mix.
Fanny plays muse to John, and their courtship plays itself out in tender kisses and chaste embraces in beautiful meadows. Rain comes down in torrents, and flowers bloom impossibly blue. The lovers part and come back together under a cloud of secrecy and strict moral standards laced with portent. Campion’s visual lyricism provides a suitable companion for Keats’ lush poetry, and Cornish makes a suitably provocative ladylove, yearning and trapped by society’s moorings, yet ahead of her times in some ways. Whishaw falls a little short as the poet in question; Keats was, by all accounts, something of a dish, a pretty boy, and Whishaw plays doomed invalid a bit too convincingly for me. Indie go-to-guy Paul Schneider plays Keats’ best friend, roommate, and considerably lesser poetic light Charles Brown; so memorable in 2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” he scores here again in another period piece.
“Impromptu” is a fizzy feast for eye and ear. The gowns are glorious, the jokes and themes timeless, the passions unbridled. The observations on artistic temperament, fame, creation, and temptation ring beautifully true. The brilliant ensemble cast is rounded out with theater god Mandy Patinkin as one of Sand’s jilted swains. Lapine, a longtime collaborator of Stephen Sondheim, called in some friends from Broadway, and it was a good call. The original script by Sarah Kernochan graces the film with original comic and psychologically astute ideas played out in a distinctly familiar — at least to cineastes — outline. Borrowing plot elements from Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic “Rules of the Game,” the screenwriter proves that stealing from the very best gets you exactly where you want to go.
“Bright Star” operates under a distinct disadvantage; writing poetry simply doesn’t make for cinema as easily as does making music. Nor does suffering, abject poverty, illness, and wistful waiting. “Impromptu” features two world class musicians at the height of their creative powers accompanied by an ensemble of lively personalities, romantic liaisons aplenty, virtually unlimited comic invention, and even an hilariously dreadful show within a show. It’s simply got more bang for your movie buck. Rent both for a glorious double feature, but, as the wall-scribbling poets would say, for a fun time, “Impromptu” is your best bet.