1818, London. Handsome young poet, John Keats (Ben Whitshaw), begins a romance with girl-next-door Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a fashion-conscious young woman who has a deft flair with a needle. His impoverished state prevents him from asking her hand in marriage but this cannot stop their romance from blooming. Mortality, though, can in “Bright Star.”
Writer-director Jane Campion brings us a riveting period piece about the love, life and death of John Keats, who succumbed to tuberculosis at the tender age of twenty-five. The Bright Star of the title is his poem for and about Fanny and it, as she reads it, is the source of this lovely love story.
Ben Whitshaw and Abbie Cornish are marvelous as the star-crossed lovers who have so little time left for each other due to John’s failing health. Their romance is a slow build (their first kiss does not take place until the 50 minute mark) and resolves with tenderness, love and pain when Fanny must separate from her true love because of his health. As much as she wants to marry the poet, his lowly economic state prohibits him from asking for her hand. If you know about Keats life – his poverty, unsold poems and a deadly illness – you know that this is a tragic story. However, the fine performances of the two leads makes you want to see what happens before the film’s foregone conclusion.
The supporting cast is excellent with Paul Schneider giving a memorable performance as Charles Armitage Brown, Keats’s mentor, friend and confidant who cared for the ailing John, paid his bills and lending him money, guaranteeing the loans himself, and saved his poems from the trash bin. Brown’s obvious love for the younger man is palpable and Schneider does a superb job on all levels. The rest of the cast is fine, too, with young Edie Martin giving a wonderful perf as Fanny’s little sister Toots. The youngster carves off a good piece of the film for charming herself.
As one would expect from a Jane Campion film, the production, all of it, is exquisite. Period set design by Jane Patterson is first-rate and delivers the look and feel of early-1800’s rural and urban England. Cinematographer Greig Fraser does an artistic job lensing, framing every shot to perfection. “Bright Star” is a film that deserves award attention, across the board, come year-end.
But, wait! Did I mention the costume design, also by Janet Patterson? This is the highlight of the film (pretty hard to do in a film that has so many) with Fanny’s love of clothing coming out with her own creative flare. Her pre-Victorian dress is unique to its surroundings, always on the cutting edge of fashion. The results are sometimes lovely but also sometimes absurd, making Fanny’s many wardrobe changes a character unto its own. Again, award attention is a must.
Now, I know that this is not going to get an “Oh, boy!” from most of the guys out there. This is definitely a for-the-femmes flick with its story of romance, elegant dialog, fine chemistry between stars Whitshaw and Cornish and outstanding production design, lensing and costume. It is a must for film buffs who can appreciate a Jane Campion film. The ladies will love it. I give it an A.
With "Bright Star," writer/director Jane Campion has made a film that is like a flip, 'civilized,' version of "The Piano's" exotic wilderness. Both feature a strong woman who must buckle under to society's idea of whom she should marry. Both feature a man, connected by trade to the male marital interest, who would break up that marriage. Both feature a clandestine love affair witnessed by a small girl related to the woman. Both feature the arts - music, of course, in "The Piano," and poetry and fashion design in "Bright Star." Both are period pieces.
What "Bright Star" lacks is "The Piano's" overt eroticism. In telling the doomed romance between Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," "I'm Not There"), who died of tuberculosis at the twenty-five, and his next door neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish, "Somersault," "Stop-Loss"), Campion uses subtler means - clasped hands, a gentle kiss, a symbolic breeze blowing over Brawne's supine body. Like the fictional Ada, Fanny was a bright and headstrong woman whose talent lay in designing dresses and accessories. She found Keats' best friend, the Scottish poet Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider, "All the Real Girls," TV's "Parks and Recreation, in a revelatory performance that should be noted at year's end), to be a boor and he thought her an airhead (his physicality is that of George Baines, albeit clothed in tartan, and his manners do not preclude impregnating the housemaid). Fanny wrestled with learning poetry, which Keats could only instruct her to immerse herself in. Whishaw is a frail romantic, with dark circles under his eyes which foreshadow his doom.
Campion's "An Angel at My Table" star, Kerry Fox, is mesmerizing in her quiet maternal performance as the widowed Mrs. Brawne, won over by the love she sees between her daughter and neighbor. Like young Anna Paquin's Flora, Edie Martin is a scene stealer as Toots, Fanny's much younger beloved sister. 'Did you eat rosebuds again?' inquires John, delighting in the blush on her cheeks.
Campion's production is sterling, resisting Hollywood's tendency to sterilize older times. Her's is a London neighborhood of dirt pathways and dank kitchens and heroines wearing no makeup. She beautifies the film with the glories of nature - fields of flowers, a butterfly farm bred in Fanny's bedroom. Fanny's stitchery shows great talent, and yet is rooted in its time, not costumey at all.
If "Bright Star" has a fault, it is not the restraint that the time puts upon its love affair, but rather a weak denouement. After a piercing display of grief from Cornish, Campion folds with a recitation of the titular poem as Fanny walks outside, giving way to title cards which relate her fate. It is an uncinematic end, a trailing off as it were, to the tale of a Romantic poet and his muse.
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