So I finally got around to watching Jane Campion’s Bright Star last night, a film that quietly studies the final years of Romantic poet John Keats and his relationship with Fanny Brawne. When Keats moves next door to the Brawnes, eldest daughter Fanny, a talented seamstress and flighty flirt, soon becomes intrigued by the poet. Keats, with his love for beauty and truth, represents a world of greater depth than the wits and dandies who usually attempt to court Brawne. Their relationship is, of course, doomed from the outset. Perpetually broke Keats doesn’t have the moolah or means to properly engage Brawne in marriage, but that doesn’t stop the pair from undertaking a furtive, pensive love affair, carried out in long walks on the heath and passionate letters. Oh, and Keats gets sick and dies at 25. That shouldn’t be a spoiler if you’ve studied your Romantics properly, now should it?
Both Abbie Cornish who plays Brawne and Ben Whishaw who plays Keats are excellent in their understatement and reserve, but the standout turn in the movie comes from actor Paul Schneider (from NBC’s Parks & Recreation) who plays Keats’s bankrolling friend Charles Armitage Brown. Brown is a lesser poet whose love and envy of Keats leads him to vex Brawne and Keats’s love at every turn, plaguing them with doubt, and that enemy of Romance, Reason. Schneider invests his character with a boorish charm that never veers into the rote tropes that afflict modern romance film. It’s emblematic of the Campion’s film in a way: Bright Star has every opportunity to devolve into a mundane exercise in doomed romance or a stuffy period piece, but under Campion’s delicate care it manages to match the depth of its subject matter.
Campion wrote the screenplay, presumably using letters from the principals as her primary source. She honors her viewers’ intelligence — far too rare these days — by never cobbling her plot together with easy exposition or forced narrative developments, and it’s that sense of history that lends the film authenticity. Cornish’s Brawne is a protagonist whose personality transformations read as real, and Whishaw’s Keats is never a cartoonish mystic or a moody caricature, but a fully-drawn human. Campion also has the good judgment to let her cinematography convey her story, letting gorgeous shots of the English countryside and cloistered chambers alike convey the mood and rhythm of her story. At times, Bright Star‘s beautiful camerawork recalls Terrence Malick, another director who allows film to “happen” to the viewer as an evocative experience rather than a spoon-feeding. Campion also shows considerable restraint with the film’s wonderful score, never allowing it to color a scene unduly when her actors can do a great job on their own. Bright Star avoids all of the pitfalls that might afflict a period piece, and does a far better job handling the subject of Romantic poetry than a movie has any right to. The film is hardly for everyone (sorry guys, no Jason Statham), but it’s very, very good. Recommended.