- Directed and written by Jane Campion
- Starring Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw
- Classification: PG
The girl is a mere teenager, and the young man will never grow old. He is fated to die, relatively unheralded, at 25, leaving his poems to endure and grow in stature, and eventually invite praise as the greatest since Shakespeare. She will marry another and, through the rest of her long life, remain secretive about their brief time together. Bright Star is the story of that time, a tale of first love between the belle damsel and the doomed genius. Fanny Brawne, meet John Keats.
In the gentle hands of Jane Campion, what a pure and poignant tale it is. The place is London circa 1820, although Campion takes admirable care not to "mount" the period piece, not to stick the Regency costumes and the attendant manners into a gilded frame. Instead, the modest houses seem lived in, the muddy streets look walked on, and the youthful principals appear refreshingly real. Especially Fanny (Abbie Cornish), who gives the film both its emotional power and its singular point of view. This may be a romance involving the greatest of the Romance poets, but the narrative unfolds not from the perspective of the famous man, but solely through the eyes of the obscure woman.
Immediately, we see those eyes at work, bent over the sewing of a colourful frock. Gaily turned out, Fanny is quite the fashion plate, but don't think any less of her. Keats makes that mistake when they initially meet, only to learn that her wit is as sharp as her needle. Pointing to her spools of thread, she smiles at the poet, who is already published yet still virtually penniless, and retorts, "But I can make money from this." Bright star, indeed.
The verbal fencing over, her interest in him is sparked by the opening line of his Endymion : "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." (Here, and elsewhere, Campion stitches in the poetry seamlessly - she's no slouch with a needle herself.) Certainly, there's beauty in their budding relationship; however, the joy is restrained on all sides, not just by the proprieties of the time (their every move is chaperoned by Fanny's tagalong siblings), but more specifically by the particularities of Keats himself - by his failing health, by his empty wallet and, not least, by his best friend.
That would be Charles Brown (played with a deliciously rambunctious burr by Paul Schneider), who sort of triangulates the love affair. Revering Keats's work as he does, Brown regards Fanny as unworthy either of the poetry or the poet. That doesn't stop him from flirting openly with the girl, and the ensuing contrast - between Keats's high romance and Brown's lower lust - grounds the picture in an often-comic earthiness, the profane rubbing shoulders with the sacred.
Of course, it's love's sublimity, or at least its simple purity, that wins out and wins us over - all those gestures small and large, like Fanny tossing Keats a folded note through an open window, or his giving her his mother's ring, or the two leaning their heads against opposite sides of the wall that separates their adjoining homes. Yes, the barriers remain. Yet the very restraint that impedes the lovers is embraced by the director. Shooting with a classical reserve, Campion steadies her camera and calms her style, raising the lyrical volume only when the romance heats up over a short-lived summer. Then, she allows her lens to find a Keatsian enchantment in the wildflowers on the sun-dappled heath and the gentle breeze billowing a gossamer curtain.
Campion demands the same quiet restraint of her cast. As Keats, Ben Whishaw positions himself at the still point between sickness and health, sometimes amorously confused ("I'm not sure I have the right feelings towards women") yet always artistically confident ("Poetry soothes and enables the soul to accept mystery"). Whishaw is just fine, but Cornish is superb. She's obliged to portray one of Campion's typical heroines - a strong and intelligent woman snared in the mores of her time - without recourse to any flamboyant theatrics. So her eyes alone speak eloquent volumes, seeing much, feeling much, even as Fanny is pushed by convention and circumstance to the margins of Keats's waning life - her love unconsummated and her anxieties unheard.
Admittedly, when the script does allow her emotions to surface, they can seem to grow out of rather thin dramatic soil - for instance, if her letters to him aren't quickly or lengthily answered, she weeps real tears. Consequently, on occasion, the film can feel too minimal and reserved, as lightweight as those gossamer curtains. Mainly, though, Cornish's performance and Campion's direction make for a beguiling marriage, never more so than during the tragic divorce of the climax. Then, in that tiny room above Rome's Spanish Steps, a young man meets his "easeful death," leaving a younger woman hundreds of miles away to bear the news alone, her girlish tears displaced by a piercing howl that few would hear and most would ignore. Until now.