Campion's 'Bright', Poetic Romance

John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish) in 'Bright Star' i i

After John Keats (Ben Whishaw) falls in love with the girl next door (Fanny Brawne, played by Abby Cornish), fate brings them to live in the same house, longing for each other through the wall. Apparition hide caption

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John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish) in 'Bright Star'

After John Keats (Ben Whishaw) falls in love with the girl next door (Fanny Brawne, played by Abby Cornish), fate brings them to live in the same house, longing for each other through the wall.

Apparition

Bright Star

  • Director: Jane Campion
  • Genre: Drama, romance, history, biopic
  • Running Time: 119 minutes

Rated PG: for sensuality, brief language and death by tuberculosis

With: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Thomas Sangster, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox

Having seen many BBC literary biopics, I've come to think of the Romantic poets as lyrical fops lolling on verdant lawns, their musings interrupted by bronchial spasms directed into tastefully blood-spotted handkerchiefs. Jane Campion's Bright Star is in a different league. Set in the 19th century, the movie centers on the unconsummated affair of John Keats and his Hampstead neighbor, Fanny Brawne, and it has a palette and rhythm all its own.

Campion tells the story in brief yet tortured scenes, her texture rough, abrasive. Every quick exchange suggests violence: emotional violence but with physical consequences, as if blood could truly be poisoned by lovesickness and a heart could literally break. The film is that vivid.

Abby Cornish plays Fanny, a flirty young woman who sews her own clothes — flouncy things, with ruffles — and is instantly smitten with Ben Whishaw's Keats. The poet is wan and impoverished, unappreciated by critics, and stricken over the wasting away of his younger brother from Tuberculosis. He can barely give Fanny his full attention — even when she asks him to tutor her in poetry.

The movie has a third major force, Keats's friend Charles Armitage Brown, played to the unnerving hilt by Paul Schneider. He hates Fanny and openly mocks her. He says he wants to keep the fragile Keats pure, ever primed for the visit of the Muse — but his behavior suggests an abandoned lover.

Bright Star is as near as Campion has come to what Keats dubbed "negative capability," which he describes in this movie as when a person is capable of, "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." What I mean in regard to Campion is that she abandons her usual arty mannerisms and agenda — which is to dramatize the ways in which women are punished by a patriarchal society for wanting to control their own bodies. Here, both Fanny and Keats suffer at the hands of a culture that leaves the penniless poet too bereft and ashamed to make the bond with his true love a formal one.

That said, Campion does have a modest feminist agenda — to salvage Brawne's 19th-century reputation as a loose woman who overtaxed the energies of her brilliant lover and had the tastelessness to publish his demonstrative letters after his death, when his reputation soared. The movie leaves no doubt that the world is better for those sublime letters, snatches of which we hear. And Campion dramatizes how deeply Brawne longed to enter Keats's inner world.

The movie doesn't have a single less-than-perfect performance: I especially loved little Edie Martin with her swarm of red ringlets as Fanny's sister Toots — she has a luminous deadpan. The one off-note? The closing credits, over which Whishaw reads the poem "Bright Star" in pear-shaped BBC syllables — too refined given what we've lived through. It's beautiful but embalmed, while the film is unruly and alive.

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