This film has renewed my belief that Hollywood can indeed capture the essence of romance. Academy Award winner Jane Campion has returned in full force with this remarkably poignant tale about renowned poet John Keats and the love that inspired his work & enticed his life. In the same fashion as her acclaimed film The Piano, Campion brings about a subtle melancholy mood that is subdued only by the strength of the actors on screen. With a relatively unknown cast, the audience is drawn in not by glamor or popularity but by the performances themselves. Such seems to be the trend with many the actor under Campion's direction, including Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin, and Nicole Kidman to name a few. And once again, she has created a masterpiece of character driven storytelling with Bright Star.
The film opens in Hampstead Village with our heroine Fanny Brawne, played by Abbie Cornish, tailoring her latest ensemble. We quickly learn that Miss Brawne is a seasoned fashion designer who takes much pride in both her work and her opinions. In a time when women did not have conventional jobs, it is peculiar to see that Fanny actually makes a living as a designer. Her father is seemingly no longer alive and she has two younger siblings. So her vocation does lend to the idea that her family is not incredibly well-off and therefore her income is a great asset to her kin. Cornish creates a character that is both passionate and lamentable. As her feelings for Mr. Keats develop, we can slowly see Fanny's vulnerability unravel and her very existence becomes focal upon her relationship. The range of emotions that Cornish portrays is astounding. Campion comments that "Abbie's portrayal of Fanny is transcendent; this performance puts her in a category with the top actors of her generation." I predict that Cornish will easily garnish an Oscar nomination for this role and undoubtedly will now be at the forefront of the public's attention.
Films about poets in general have not been very good recants of their actual biographies. More often than not, such scripts are tailored in a way that focuses too much on their actual lives. Like in the film Sylvia, Gwyneth Paltrow seeks to create a dismal recantation of Sylvia Plath's love life but fails to effectively parallel it to her writing. This is not what Campion achieves in Bright Star. Because she wrote the screenplay herself, as is her creative tendency, she probably knew exactly the story she was looking to tell. Keats had left behind a detailed account of his relationship with Fanny Brawne in the numerous letters he wrote to her and to her sister. Campion clearly paid very close attention to the details of his correspondences and as a result we see how Keats loved and how it reflected upon his work. Though often subtle, Keats' poems are laced throughout the film so methodically it's almost artful. There is an elegant recital of Keats' poem "Ode to the Nightingale" in the closing scene that kept the audience glued to their seats long after the credits started to role.
This quintessence of legendary English poet John Keats is captured in whole by Ben Whishaw. He conceives a man who is both burdened by his failures and idealistic in his ambitions. You can see the sentiment of concern in Keats' eyes when he speaks of those most dear to him, namely his brother Tom and later Fanny. He uses an indirect modesty to recant how life has brought him to Hampstead. He curses his circumstances without being ungrateful to his companion Mr. Charles Armitage Brown, played by Paul Schneider, even though it is clear that he has not profited from his pen. Today, John Keats is considered to be the father of the Romantic movement, but he did not live to see such adoration or success. His dire financial restraints hinder not only his livelihood but ultimately prohibit him form marrying Fanny. The two seemed to be star crossed lovers from the get go who have everything and everyone against them.
Mister Browne establishes himself very early on as a foe to Fanny. Schneider fosters a range of emotions as Keats' best friend and sustains himself to be an annoyance for most of the film. He outright almost sabotages his friend by sending Fanny a Valentine message, proclaiming he is merely playing her "game". But he too inevitably faces his own predicaments with love and finds himself forced to make sacrifices of his own that he had not anticipated. Unfortunately, this directly impacts Keats. And their relationship is suspended as each man struggles with their own predicaments of love. Although Browne often overlooks his mate's personal sentiments, he always meant him well. Perhaps one of the most emotional monologues in the film is when Browne comes to the devastating realization of just what Keats means to him, "I failed John Keats! I failed John Keats! I did not know how tightly he had wound himself around my heart!"
On a cinematic level, Campion creates a vividly lush film that compliments the emotional situations of the characters. There are wonderfully resounding scenes set against open fields of purple flowers and the many splendors of the forest. This is a London that does not exist today, as much of that countryside has long since been developed. There are creative shots of Keats atop a tree reveling in his feelings and off-centered closeups of many an innate object, such as a key worn on a necklace or a detailed cross stitch threading, each capture the moment perfectly. There are numerous other symbolic images of Fanny and John's relationship made throughout the film: the Wall that divides their bedrooms in their adjacent houses, the Cat who fills a void while Fanny is separated from her love, and the Butterfly that transforms from a caterpillar with new found means of freedom.
In Bright Star, we find ourselves in the midst of a truly great romantic film where the simplicity of poetry and passion carry us all the way through to the very end. The acting is utterly superb and I expect that Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish and Paul Schneider will all receive recognition come awards season. Once again, director Jane Campion has written a script about human desire and emotional circumstance and created a film that surpasses the predictability of other period films of its kind. Her movie captures the force behind John Keats' greatest works and we can now put a face to the lyrics in many of his poems. "Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow." So too does Jane Campion's film Bright Star.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Bottom Line: An extraordinary biopic of love & passion. Go see it in the theaters!