Written and Directed by Jane Campion
John Keats died in 1821, when he was only slightly older than twenty-five years old. He left behind a rather vast and exceptional collection of poems, which established him as one of the greatest of the Romantic poets long after his death. The strength of passion behind his words is what separated him from most, and in Bright Star, Jane Campion's latest film, we are given the main muse behind all of that passion.
The film is in fact about Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a wistful young seamstress who is immediately taken when she comes face to face with John Keats (Ben Whishaw). Keats is a scrawny and scruffy young man, but Fanny is immediately drawn toward his cadence and grace. When Franny learns that his brother has taken seriously ill, she comes to offer some biscuits. She hopes to work her way closer into his heart, and soon after Keats' brother dies, Fanny and her family move into the house next door to his.
Before long, the two become romantically entangled. Though she doesn't know much about poetry, she enjoys letting Keats teach her. She wants dreadfully to understand, because she wants dreadfully to appreciate his art. Keats is charming, and he gets along well with Fanny's siblings and mother, but there is a rather large stumbling block preventing marriage between he and Fanny. Keats has not had success as a poet, and has no income--actually, he's in debt. He simply cannot afford to become a husband.
One other thing coming between their young romance is Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), Keats' Scottish writing partner. Brown has invested a lot of time into helping Keats produce his best work, and the last thing he wants is Franny distracting him. Charles does his best to sabotage the relationship; he explains to both Keats and Fanny that their young love could only stunt the creative flow. Staunch and crass, Charles Brown is beyond indignant in his crafting of Keats, at the expense of Fanny's happiness.
Jane Campion is one of the more respected filmmakers in the business, renowned for her delicacy and a flair for bringing out the best in her actors. Both of those filmmaking traits appear in Bright Star, which is probably the best film she's made since 1993's The Piano. Period pieces about writers are rarely the most interesting of films, since the creation of art is never as exciting as the art itself (unless we're taking an anxiety-riddled, post-modern look ala Spike Jonze's Adaptation). What Campion does exquisitely, though, is focus on the romance which in turn, produces the writing.
In real life, Keats passed before he and Fanny could officially marry, and Bright Star sticks to that script. The two lovers never share more than conservative kisses, but through Campion's lens, they are showcased as passionate images of love. Of coarse, credit must go to Cornish and Whishaw who play their roles subtly and elegantly. Cornish, a soon-to-be movie star, gives the best work I've ever seen from her, injecting Fanny with much needed "steadfastness", as Keats would say, through her impish girlishness. Whishaw, certainly looking the part, does quite a good job of expressing the ultimate seriousness of the young, ambitious writer.
In his supporting role of Mr. Brown, Paul Schneider may very well be the best part of the film. He's callous and nasty, but still eloquent, witty, and downright irresistible. Brown is the main antagonist throughout the film, though he believes the whole time that he is working within Keats' best interest. In a scene I won't fully reveal, Brown has a riveting moment of self-reflection, which only seems non-contrived because Schneider plays the role so effortlessly and without judgment.
Is Bright Star a little long-winded? All you have to do is watch the trailer to realize that. Of coarse, it was a practice of the Romantics to be methodical and patient, trying to take note of all of the beauties that life had to offer. Well, Campion certainly notes all of the beautiful moments within this story, taking what was a rather tame conquest on the surface and making it an intense journey through young love. Containing some of the best shot work of her career, it's safe to say Campion is working in rare form, and it's good to see a woman filmmaker working well into her fifties--too bad the same couldn't be said for Keats.