When John Keats wrote "Bright Star, Would I Were Stedfast" for his beloved Fanny Brawne, he was a penniless wordsmith with a knack—but not a hankering—for stirring up controversy. Though history now regards him as one of the finest poets, Keats wasn’t popularly praised during his twenty-five year lifetime. In the era of Jane Austen and Washington Irving, Keats’ ethereal verses and passionate prose didn’t provide the right flavor of the week—or in his case, decade—to win over audiences. But what Keats lacked in literary respect was more than made up for in the ardor of his torrid relationship with Fanny Brawne, one of the most dazzling love stories to ever exist.
Bright Star, Jane Campion’s newest film, chronicles the Romance (with a capital "R") between Keats and Brawne from its budding first impressions until its final consumptive breath. Playing the doomed young lovers, Australian Abbie Cornish (Candy, Stop-Loss) and period-piece laden Ben Whishaw (I’m Not There, Perfume: Story of a Murderer) embody the very essence of cinematic enchantment, and their performances will leave you breathless. Like Bogart and Bacall, Cornish and Whishaw display a voracious onscreen fervor for each other. Throughout the film, their delicate moments together, though entirely chaste, are breathtakingly sensual, harmonious, and truly aching. Unlike contemporary romances where the two leads engage in a mandatory sex scene that shows all and absolutely nothing at the same time, Cornish and Whishaw’s light petting, caresses, and whispered sweet nothings envelop the senses. There is a burning desire felt between them that is sincere and bewildering.
The Academy Award winning Campion has created some of the best female driven films of the last twenty-five years: An Angel at my Table, The Piano, and In the Cut. She is no stranger to the portrayal of doomed romance, and though usually a bit more carnal, Bright Star fits snugly in with the rest of her feminist-minded filmography. Her lady leads are often introverted, intelligent women with a quiet dignity and passion for artistic expression. Told strictly from Fanny’s perspective, Bright Star differs in that Fanny is more flamboyant than any other Campion creation by possessing an outspoken, flashy nature that she’s incredibly proud of. In a sea of endless, bland corsets and cotillions, Fanny expresses herself through fashion. She designs and sews all of her own garments, and as her love grows for Keats, Fanny’s wardrobe becomes more beautiful and glamorous. To show their mutual respect for one another, Campion composes many shots in which Keats and Fanny work on their own artistic mediums side by side.
Set in the English countryside, Bright Star is Campion’s most gorgeous film to date. Often juxtaposing femininity with nature, Campion shoots everything on location with an astute sense of how the surroundings relate to her central character. In Bright Star, countless flowers and butterflies, as well as vivid foliage set the stage for this tragic love affair. The happiest occasions take place outdoors with compositions intended to sweep the viewers' emotions with a series of cinematic ellipses.
Indoors, however, is a different story. After Fanny and Keats begin their infatuation, Fanny's circumstances dictate that she and her poor family move into one half of the house Keats is charitably living in. The house is owned by his good friend Charles Armitage Brown (the terrific Paul Schneider), a sarcastic curmudgeon who disapproves of Keats’ relationship with Fanny. He believes it takes away from Keats' poetry, not realizing Fanny is its inspiration. Brown abuses his ownership of the lodging by trying to force the young lovers apart.
Though the premise of Bright Star is familiar, its flawless execution is a breath of fresh air. It doesn’t take pride in being a period piece, like Pride and Prejudice or Atonement; instead, Bright Star simply and organically exists in that time. As a Campion fan (in case you hadn’t guessed), I had been looking forward to this film for six long years, and none of her other creations shook me as heartily as this. As I left the theatre, I could hardly breathe from the overwhelming emotion that invaded my soul in a way I've scarcely felt before. I can’t stop thinking about it and feeling the tremors it bestowed. Don’t forget the Kleenex.