Costume drama is a perilous gold mine of cliches, but with Bright Star Australian director Jane Campion seems to have hit the vein that she had been searching for in The Piano (1993). Intense and atmospheric, it avoids the pitfalls of fancy dress and transports the audience to another world, whose logic is not of this one.
It takes as its starting point the poet John Keats and his meeting with, quite literally, the girl next door, Fanny Brawne. What follows is a brief moment of romance, which in our historical knowledge of its transience is like a haiku. Keats died at age 25 having written some of the best-known and best-loved poems of the English Romantic movement.
Biopics, especially those of writers, have a tendency to trip themselves up with voice-overs taken from their written works, which are crowbared into the narrative. Campion deals with the problem by making Bright Star itself an ode of sorts, with an elusive texture full of fleeting hints of emotion hidden behind a formal exterior of early 19th-century English life.
In between meeting and parting forever, Fanny learns a little about poetry, and Keats finds a muse who is almost in every way different from what one might expect.
For Fanny is a no-nonsense type of girl who comes of a good, but not particularly wealthy family, who has a positive opinion of her own talents and the place in the world and esteem of others that this entitles her. She is a skilled seamstress with aspirations to being a fashion designer, and she has no qualms about telling Keats, who is a virtual pauper living on the charity of friends and admirers, that it is at least a skill with which she can make a living.
The part of Fanny Brawne is well conceived and executed by Abbie Cornish, who produces a performance of magnificent restraint, holding behind her very correct deportment and speech a veritable flood of passion. There are no naked bodies and bodice-ripping scenes beyond the abilities of Ben Whishaw’s Keats, who seems barely to have strength enough to force his way through a field of daffodils.
In a movie industry that harps almost manically on eroticism, Campion does not take the easy route of having her lead actors throwing themselves into each other’s arms at every opportunity. She allows them to grow into love, so that when that love becomes an accomplished fact, the impossibility of any kind of union is all the more heartbreaking. “Attachment is such a difficult thing to undo,” says Mrs Dilke, Keats’ landlady, who is full of kindness and good sense, shaking her head over an affair that she knows can only end badly for
Although propriety is observed, Campion does not let us forget that these are flesh-and-blood beings who value physical intimacy. The closest that Bright Star gets to a bedroom scene is a flirtatious exchange in which Fanny suggests that Keats might be sleeping in the bed she at one time used. It is just a whiff of sexuality, but in Campion’s hands, it is potent stuff.
The passionate relationship is leavened by a skillful performance by Paul Schneider as Charles Armitage Brown, Keats’ friend, fellow poet and champion. He first dismisses Fanny, then flirts with her, then tries, in his own way, to separate the two. His love of Keats is a rough and earthy thing, but his admiration of the poetry is sincere, and he resents Fanny’s intrusion into their relationship.
This trio is supported by a fine ensemble cast, most notably Kerry Fox as Fanny’s mother, and some fine camera work that by turns lingers over an almost impossibly beautiful English countryside and captures the claustrophobic spaces of the rented house in Hampstead shared by Keats, Brown and the Brawne family.
Bright Star is a movie that allows love its mystery. Campion has captured the mood of Keats’ poetry, its elegiac sorrow and deep passion, and filtered it through into a story that manages to link real people with the expression of transcendent emotion without ever compromising their flesh-and-bone humanity.
BEN WHISHAW (JOHN KEATS), ABBIE CORNISH (FRANCES ‘FANNY’ BRAWNE), KERRY FOX (MRS BRAWNE), PAUL SCHNEIDER (CHARLES ARMITAGE BROWN), EDIE MARTIN (MARGARET ‘TOOTS’ BRAWNE), THOMAS SANGSTER (SAMUEL BRAWNE)
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