If you give yourself over to its quiet, pale musings, this melancholy and lovely tale of the romance between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne will reward you with its naturalistic grace and beauty.
I know, sometimes watching recommended period dramas can feel like eating your vegetables. And no, I’m not going to sugarcoat your lima beans for you—a quiet, meditative film like writer-director Jane Campion’s Bright Star asks you to give yourself over when watching. To slow down and savor, to let the film set the pace for you.
But if you can idle down a bit, this is a delicate, gorgeous film that will reward your patience and attention. Campion directed The Piano with Holly Hunter and the adaptation of Henry James’s The Portrait of the Lady with Nicole Kidman, and now this painting of the Romantic poet John Keats’ relationship with Fanny
Brawne in the English countryside, around 1820. Here the filmmaker has set out to not just tell a sad story about a doomed love affair [SPOILER ALERT! JOHN KEATS DIED YOUNG OF CONSUMPTION!] but to also peer into that always dicey cinematic proposition: the heart and mind of the creative soul.
Keats, played by Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), was the shining creative center of the English Romantic poetry movement of the early 1800s—with lasting contributions such as “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “To Autumn,” it was Keats that other poets such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley bowed down to. Of course it never hurts to die young, either.
Brawne was a dressmaker, shown here as a creative and intellectually curious soul herself. As portrayed by Abbie Cornish (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Stop-Loss) and presented by Campion, her intense love for the impoverished poet hits all the usual Austen-esque notes: her mother thinks he’s too poor to be a proper marriage prospect, he’s worried Fanny really fancies his friend Charles Armitage Brown (a terrific Paul Schneider), and so on.
Yes, this is a film that is often about people carefully wrapping and unwrapping things. There is tea and sewing, letters and scones. Impressive hats and frilly dresses are worn, mournful violins are played. Everyone is so thin, pale, and wan that Bright Star is, in all ways, the anti-Jersey Shore. But even if those refinements are not your ideas of gripping film entertainment, I promise there is enough beauty and grace in the performances and the chilly, restrained cinematography to make it all worth your while, no matter how you feel about dashing 19th-century headwear.
Campion intentionally filmed Bright Star in the cold, pale light of the misty English countryside, where even when the sun does shine, it feels weak and frail. There’s also a naturalistic, worn quality to the film’s look that helps protect it from pretension but doesn’t prevent it from offering up exquisite visual moments.
The idea is not to dazzle viewers with ornate sets and costumes, but to draw them into the film’s purer heart: the Romantic sensibilities that found beauty in (sometimes bleak) nature. While the film does spend some time in sitting rooms and at social gatherings, in its second half it moves out of the drawing rooms and onto the heath, gliding among the flowering trees and dappling sunlight—the sorts of places Keats found his creative epiphanies.
Keats himself is presented a frail thing, an aesthete whose attentions hover between the heart and the grave, equally infatuated with the ideas of love and his own death. Whishaw is all big dark eyes and impressively unkempt hair, but he turns in a fine, engaging performance as a character whose emotions run so deep they only express themselves in the poems. Always seeming to be receding, fading (and dying), Keats is more often defined by those around him than by his own actions. He’s the kind of guy who says calmly, quietly, “I am boiling with fury.”
As is usual in these sorts of 19th-century tales, it is the woman who must rise above societal conventions to provide the emotional and romantic heat, and Cornish is sublime as Fanny. (It’s sad that this Oscar season the subtleties of Cornish’s work here and Carey Mulligan’s in An Education are being overshadowed by the celebrity fueled bombast of Sandra Bullock’s broad performance in The Blind Side.) Like Whishaw with Keats, Cornish has to play Fanny’s passion through a veil of outward repression, but the actress holds the center of the film perfectly—she may be quietly struggling with her love for Keats, but by the end it’s clear who is carrying the movie dramatically.
However, where Keats and Brawne’s eventual romance fills the soul of Bright Star (the title is from one of Keats’ poems about Brawne), many of the film’s most effective and entertaining scenes are between Brawne and Schnieder’s Mr. Brown, Keats’ supportive, protective friend. Schneider, who’s been seen in Elizabethtown, The Assassination of Jesse James, Lars and the Real Girl, Away We Go, and most recently, the sitcom Parks and Recreation, gives Bright Star its less mushy oomph, whether he’s trying to aggrandize, justify, and preserve the sacred poetic work ethic (a lot of time hanging out, pursuing the muse), sparring with Fanny over his disapproval of a woman distracting Keats from his noble calling, or chasing house maids.
Giggling and rude, bearded and brawny, Brown is one of those delightful characters—a boor trying to pass himself off as a free spirit, a sub-par creator sidling up to offer support to and ride along with a greater talent, a believer in the old boy’s club mantra that women just mess everything up. And yet, he’s also a sincere believer in Keats’ gift, aware that he is playing nursemaid to true greatness. Schneider and Cornish’s mutual needling and sneering disapproval of one another give Bright Star some of its tastiest scenes.
Of course eventually there is an ill-advised walk in the cold rain and that old telltale cough. But Bright Star is never a downer—just as Keats and his fellow Romantic poets embraced the notion of death as yet another great emotional experience, the film works hard to make sure that the inevitable resolution is never sold cheap or used for easy, pandering pathos. Instead, as the best poems do, it transmutes melancholy sadness into something deeper, more inspiring and beautifully moving.
After all, Campion is pursing something larger than just an ill-advised love story. She wants Bright Star to get at not just what poetry is or how it’s inspired and created (though the film has plenty of that), but for the movie to function as a poem itself, trying through the coupling of Keats and Brawne to draw out that cold, pale flame of elusive beauty at the heart of love and life. She succeeds nicely, balancing insights on the nature of poetry with observations on the poetry of nature and making Bright Star well worth slowing down for.