It is rare that a film separates potential viewers into two camps so easily as Bright Star, director Jane Campion’s ode to the relationship between John Keats, the great 19th century Romantic poet, and Fanny Brawne, an independent, opinionated Englishwoman whose intellectual curiosity and appreciation for poetry won Keats’ heart. For filmgoers who enjoy lushly filmed, micro-detailed period dramas about star-crossed lovers laboring under oppressive social mores, Bright Star offers an impressive example of the genre, with Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish delivering intense, nuanced performances as the penniless poet and his gentlewoman lover, separated by societal restrictions but united by romantic passion. Campion’s film, which she also wrote, is a bravura example of a director’s refusal to compromise thematic depth and character development for the quicker pace favored in modern media.
For the rest of you, two full hours of heated poetry recitations exchanged between longing gazes and chaste kisses may seem like a life sentence at the Jane Austen Correctional Facility. Make no mistake, while Bright Star is a beautiful film, it is exactly what Campion set out to make: a weighty oil painting depicting the doomed love of a Romance poet and his muse, with liberal doses of quoted verse in the dialogue and a willful disdain for pacing. If that’s not your cup of tea, you might prefer a colonoscopy.
In 1818 England, Fanny Brawne (Cornish) enjoys a mild, quiet life with her widowed mother and younger brother and sister. Locally known for her skillful needlework and clothing designs, Brawne presents a protagonist who might have leapt from the pages of Pride and Prejudice: a stubborn, candid girl on the cusp of womanhood, too intelligent and self-reliant to be satisfied with her lot in the patriarchal world of Georgian England. Her family, though not wealthy, enjoys a sufficient income to move among the artistic and intellectual social circles of 19th century British society, where Brawne meets talented but impoverished poet John Keats. Keats, a brooding young man, becomes intrigued by Brawne’s earnest curiosity over how to “work out poems” as she puts it, as if each verse were a puzzle for her amusement. Through a confluence of circumstances, Keats’ colleague and financial benefactor, fellow poet Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), lets rooms next door to Brawne’s home, with Keats and Brown setting up shop to collaborate on their work almost literally under the nose of Keats’ inquisitive admirer.
Brawne seizes the opportunity to study poetry with Keats, and love soon blossoms as her innate romantic nature awakens to the husky-voiced ministrations of Keats’ soulful rhythms and imagery. In turn, Brawne’s blunt humor and intellectual adventurousness lift Keats out of a dry patch in his writing, inspiring him to create new works, including the sonnet devoted to Brawne from which Bright Star takes its title. Keats and Brawne become near-constant companions despite stern opposition from both Brawne’s mother, who admonishes her daughter that she cannot marry a man with “no income and no prospects,” and Brown, who perceives Brawne as a parasitic socialite distracting Keats from his calling as an oracle of romantic truth. A far greater obstacle soon presents itself, however, when Keats takes seriously ill with tuberculosis, which had already claimed his brother at a young age.
For period drama lovers, Bright Star offers numerous arresting images, and the cinematography and scene construction are two of the film’s greatest strengths, relying as much on sumptuous visual metaphors of passionate romantic love as on dialogue. During one of Keats’ occasional absences, Brawne lies on her bed pining for his return, flush with the passion of first love. A breeze ruffles through an open window, rippling under Brawne’s skirts and up her legs while sunlight gently plays across her white dress. If there were any doubt about the blooming of Brawne’s nascent sexuality, it disappears as the contrasting thrill of a cool breeze and warm sunlight heralds a passionate new influence on the ripening girl. In another beautifully constructed scene, after Brawne receives a letter from Keats comparing their love to two butterflies, Brawne puts her brother and sister to work catching dozens of butterflies with which to fill Brawne’s room while she awaits Keats’ return; beneath the elegant surface beauty of the resulting fluttering menagerie, the image suggests the delicate stomach of a young lover, filled with imaginary butterflies. The costuming, excellent all around, provides additional visual context, and Cornish’s wardrobe is particularly eye-catching, representing Brawne’s own suppressed artistic ambitions finding expression through needle and fabric as opposed to pen and paper.
To the extent Bright Star has a significant weakness as cinema, the film suffers from a choppy editing hand, manifesting itself in an uneven narrative structure which occasionally leaves one wondering what exactly is going on. Characters absent themselves mysteriously, coming and going based on narrative events which are not always clear. Campion also doesn’t consistently navigate the complicated social rituals of 19th century England in a way which would allow a 21st century viewer to fully comprehend why a particular action or assertion might be taken as a slight. Problems with editing continuity stand out in a film like Bright Star, which depends mightily on luring the viewer into the room with the characters while the plot meanders through their interactions. When the narrative jumps because of an apparent disconnect in motivation or logic, the effect is a little jarring.
The uniformly excellent cast provides a strong foundation, however, and while Bright Star occasionally staggers under its own weight, the leads and the supporting actors keep the film upright and moving, albeit at a glacial pace. Cornish and Whishaw both take roles that threaten to become stifling and turn them into a focused reverie on the nature of romantic love in an era when the worth of a marriage turned on economic security and matches of appropriate station. Among the supporting players, Schneider in particular is a standout, stealing several scenes as Keats’ complicated and temperamental friend Brown, by turns arrogant, loving, bullying, and hilarious. Although afforded less screen time, child actor Edie Martin provides a welcome counterweight as Brawne’s sister Toots, a pale, wide-eyed elf with curly strawberry-blonde hair and a penchant for blurting out amusingly candid observations. Kerry Fox, best known for smart, sexy roles in movies like Shallow Grave, is almost unrecognizable as the widow Brawne, performing well in the thankless role of Shapeless English Matron.
Yet Bright Star relies most on Whishaw and Cornish to do the heavy lifting, and they do not disappoint. Their portrayals of Keats and Brawne avoid a hazard common to the genre, i.e., the ostensible passionate love affair that more closely resembles cloying, self-absorbed infatuation. Instead, they find a credible chemistry and tone to bind together their romance, creating a sensation that should resonate strongly with anyone who ever pair-bonded over “thoughts that breathe, and words that burn,” to borrow from poet Thomas Gray. In staying true to her own vision, Campion takes a brave stand by making a film that is uncompromising in its insistent focus on the depths of the characters and the minute details of their lives, at the expense of modern filmmaking convention. Bright Star requires a certain patience, but the payoff is worth the wait.
Ted Boynton is usually picked last for kickball, mostly because he treats it as an opportunity to lounge in the outfield with a bottle of rye and a Lone Star — there’s no “I” in “team,” but there are at least two in “inebriation.” Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]