Bright Star ***
Directed By: Jane Campion.
Written By: Jane Campion
Starring: Ben Whishaw (John Keats), Abbie Cornish (Fanny Brawne), Paul Schneider (Charles Armitage Brown), Kerry Fox (Fanny's mother), Thomas Sangster (Samuel Brawne), Jonathan Aris (Leigh Hunt), Samuel Barnett (Joseph Severn).
At one point in her career, director Jane Campion seemed poised to become the best female filmmaker in history. Sweetie, An Angel At My Table, The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady were all wonderful, visually sumptuous films. But in the last decade, she seems to have gotten off track. First was the ill advised Holy Smoke, whose only asset was Kate Winslet remarkable performance, then was the terrible In the Cut, that had nothing going for it at all. Her new film, Bright Star, puts Campion back on the right track. While it is still not as good as her best work, it is certainly a step up from the other films she has made recently. It is a quiet, touching, subtle, utterly gorgeous film.
The film stars Ben Whishaw as the poet John Keats, who in 1800s England is penniless, mired in debt, with a very sick brother who is probably not going to live much longer, and no other family. The only reason why he is able to continue to write his poetry is because he has many friends, who understand just how good his writing is, even if the critics and public do not seem to know. His most loyal friend is Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), who is not exceedingly wealthy, but he does have an income and prospects. Keats spends more time hanging out with Brown than he does in his own home.
Then, Keats meets Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a beautiful woman, and is immediately smitten. Brawne is intelligent and clever. A brilliant seamstress, she creates her own clothes, and is always the most stylish woman around their small country town. She could make a living off of her work, except for one problem - she’s a woman. Brawne knows nothing about poetry, but knows what she likes, and she likes Keats, and finds at least part of his poems to be absolutely beautiful.
Neither Keats’ friends, nor Brawne’s family, likes the match very much. Brown sees Brawne as an intellectual lightweight, and fool, and makes no secret of it. He mocks her obsession with fashion, and cruelly derides her lack of knowledge about poetry. For Brawne’s family, they do not want to see their daughter fall for a man who she can not possibly marry. Keats cannot even support himself, let alone a wife. Theirs is a doomed love affair.
And for Campion, it is also a rather chaste one. The two only ever share a bed one time, and when they do, they remain fully clothed. They share a few kisses, and there is certainly an erotic charge between the two of them, but theirs is a relationship built upon their denial of their baser instincts. When Keats goes away for weeks or months at a time, their relationship is built solely on the letters they exchange. During their relationship, Keats writes many of his best poetry. Known as one of the best of the romantic poets, Brawne inspired much of his best work,
Typical of Campion, the film is utterly gorgeous. The cinematography is subtle, yet striking, providing memorable images that never really call attention to themselves. The costume design and art direction are also pretty much the best of the year. This is a different kind of costume drama, as it does not take place among the elite, with gorgeous gowns and huge halls, but rather something more subtle. But Campion and her team craft a beautiful, memorable film.
The performances also help. Whishaw seems to be a natural at playing a poet, having come from playing Bob Dylan by way of Arthur Rimbald in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. It is hard to make poetry seem natural when delivered out loud, or to make writing seem all that interestingly cinematic, but Whishaw does it. Cornish is even better as Brawne. When the two are separated, it is her that the movie follows. Her lust, her pain are palpable, and this one proves (as did the little seen Candy), that she is not just a pretty face, but also a wonderful actress. The best performance in the movie though belongs to Schneider as Brown. He perfectly captures his playboy charm, his intellectual snobbery, and his tendency to be a bully. Schneider, who has been delivering great performances for a while now, delivers perhaps his best one yet with this film.
Bright Star may prove a little too slow to be a huge audience hit. It is a subtle, quiet film, but one that is utterly gorgeous and engaging. While this film may not vault Campion back into the filmmaking elite, it certainly does get her back on track, so that in the future, she may do just that.