In Theaters: Bright Star

Movieline Score:

In Bright Star, Jane Campion conjures a nineteenth century world into which many of us would happily slip: people behave beautifully, dress carefully, spend afternoons dancing minuets and evenings perfecting their harmonies, quote poetry to each other with complete unselfconsciousness, and fall in love like absolute champions. Aside from non-existent plumbing and the mortal threat posed by everything short of a hangnail, it's positively idyllic. Keatsian, even.

Settling instead for inhabiting the world of the film is an easy bargain: against tall odds, Campion manages to tell the story of the love affair struck between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his neighbor, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) -- itself steeped in twin traditions of the class-conscious costume drama and literary bio-pic -- as though it has never been told before. Even when she does hack at some old, saw-bitten log, the cut comes fresh: Campion can't seem to resist that signature, period expression of sublimated desire, the kitty-stroking shot, but I swear to god it's the most marvelously poignant kitty-stroking shot you'll ever see. Same goes for the reveal of the tubercular Keats's inevitably blood-soaked linens.

Campion has clearly drunk deep of Keats's poetry, and her script admirably balances wit, restraint, and liberal call-and-response quotations with pocket symposiums on what a poem should do. "A poem needs understanding through the senses," Keats advises Fanny, comparing it to immersion in a lake -- an experience to be felt, not necessarily thought about. The script's reverence for words in their proper place translates two ways, the second leaving plenty of room for the grandeur of silence, and the visual phrase. As the bond between Fanny and Keats strengthens in the face of its impossibility (him being an orphan of no account, her the family's hope for a lucrative marriage), their interactions, fraught with improbably naturalistic swings between ease and tension, are divided by images of the couple in their own domains, separated but swimming though each other's thoughts: a shot from Fanny's window of Keats on the grass is rhymed later with her on the other side of the glass, looking in. A simple profile of her reclining, fully clothed, onto her narrow, white bed becomes a brief ode to luxuriating, alone, in some recent bliss.


For while Campion has clearly been impressed by Keats's aesthetic and his short life (he died, at 25, in a small room in Rome, which is now a very creepy and affecting museum), she doesn't generally make films about men, and this one is no different: the Bright Star of the title, and the subject of Keats's poem of the same name, is Fanny Brawne. Having suffered from her reputation as "promiscuous" (what hanky-swapping heights of depravity that word suggested in 1820, I can only imagine), Brawne was reviled for publishing Keats's letters to her after his death, a collection now treasured by his devotees and scholars.

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