The title of Jane Campion’s new film is taken from a poem of the same name by the Romantic poet John Keats. Both are inspired by his intense love affair with Fanny Brawne, tragically cut short when Keats died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 25. But “Bright Star” could also refer to the glittering talent of this most lyrical of poets whose work would become much more celebrated after his premature death.
Like her previous films The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady, Campion breathes a modern sensibility into the period setting, which follows the ill-fated affair from beginning to end, from 1818 to 1821. Drawing from Keats’s poems, and the passionate love letters that he sent Fanny, as well as Andrew Motion’s biography, the film may seem slow moving and short on drama, but it is executed with delicate subtlety and unsentimental sensitivity.
Interestingly, Bright Star mainly follows Fanny’s point of view, and it is she who makes the running early in her relationship with Keats. This 18-year-old girl next door, who designs and makes her own unconventionally fashionable clothes at home, is shown to be strong-willed as she breaks down the high-minded Keats’s initial resistance to what he thinks is someone interested only in superficial pleasures like flirting and dancing. Their early encounters are awkward but Fanny’s determination to learn about poetry and especially her compassion for Keats’s terminally ill younger brother brings the two together.
However, big external obstacles to their union remain in the way. First, Mrs Brawn, who does not consider the penurious Keats a future son-in-law as he seems to have no real career prospects. And second, Mr Brown, Keats’s friend and fellow poet with whom he lives, who is jealous of Fanny and who does not want her to distract Keats from his poetic calling. Having overcome these, the star-crossed lovers’ happiness is foiled by the insuperable obstacle of death.
This highly affecting drama is a real return to form for New Zealander Campion six years after her last feature-length film, the intriguing but deeply flawed In the Cut. Admittedly there are longueurs in this story of slow-burning passion which is never consummated, and in its tight focus on the liaison it omits showing Keats’s medical training. Nevertheless, the Bright Star‘s natural intimacy and understated sensuousness make it quietly compelling, while Keats’s beautiful verse is well integrated into the film.
Avoiding the picture-postcard prettiness of a Merchant-Ivory production this is nonetheless a handsome film, full of memorable images such as the lovers walking through long grass into a wood for their first kiss, or curtains blowing by an open window as Fanny lies on her bed thinking of Keats. The cinematography of Greig Fraser is mainly classically still, depicting the changing seasons and interiors of elegant regency houses. The Hyde House estate in Bedfordshire stands in for Hampstead Heath, while there is one striking shot of Keats’s funeral cortege in Rome.
The performances are nicely understated. Relative newcomer Australian actress Abbie Cornish is particularly impressive as Fanny, representing the emotional heart of the film with growing confidence as she matures from girl to woman. Ben Whishaw (last seen as a miscast Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited) looks the part of a doomed poet with his wasted chic appearance, but subverts the moody stereotype with feline complexity and wry humour. Paul Schneider is the more earth-bound and boorish Mr Brown, while Kerry Fox is the remarkably patient and open-minded Mrs Brawne.
Recent films about poets have ranged from the dire (Rimbaud and Verlaine in Total Eclipse and the Earl of Rochester in The Libertine) to the interesting but unsatisfactory (Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in Sylvia and Dylan Thomas in The Edge of Love). Bright Star is one of the most successful because it finds a visual language to match the lyrical intensity of Keats’s writing.