The Jane Campion embraced by 1990s arthouse audiences but who’s been missing of late makes an impressive return with “Bright Star.” Breaking through any period-piece mustiness with piercing insight into the emotions and behavior of her characters, the writer-director examines the final years in the short life of 19th-century romantic poet John Keats through the eyes of his beloved, Fanny Brawne, played by Abbie Cornish in an outstanding performance. Beautifully made film possesses solid appeal for specialized auds in most markets, including the U.S., where it will be released by Bob Berney and Bill Pohlad’s yet-to-be named new distribution company, although its poetic orientation and dramatic restraint will likely stand in the way of wider acceptance.
Keats died in 1821 at age 25, and his final years were marked by an incredible burst of creativity as well as by his one great romance, which inspired some extraordinary love letters. By concentrating on the latter, as experienced by Fanny, Campion gives rather short shrift to the former, leaving the viewer with a vivid picture of the social constraints on grand passion and romantic fulfillment in England at the time. While avoiding the typical biopic template, the film nonetheless honors the facts of the central relationship, which means some typical, central audience expectations concerning emotional payoff aren’t met.
Most of the action is confined to two neighboring houses in Hampstead Village, North London, beginning in 1818. Living in one is the Brawne family, a fatherless brood consisting of matriarch Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox), 18-year-old daughter Fanny (Cornish), teenager Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and little sprite Toots (Edie Martin), while the bearded, boorish Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider) and Keats (Ben Whishaw) occupy the other.
While unobtrusively laying in the character dynamics — Brown, highly protective of his Keats, is pointedly rude to Fanny and does all he can to keep her away from his friend, whom he tirelessly helps with his work — Campion devotes special attention to the physical and aural aspects of this little middle-class corner of British society, thereby highlighting the sensual qualities of life that particularly captivated Keats himself. The opening shots convey the act of sewing — Fanny’s frequent activity — with unsurpassed intimacy, while a performance by a small male chorus at a domestic party carries oddly moving force, and other scenes pointedly focus upon pastimes that quiver with quasi-sexual sublimation, including dancing, sport, butterfly-collecting and hunting for the most fragrant flowers.
Then there is the poetry, which brings home the realization of how few films have ever dealt with poets and their work. Effectively establishing herself as an onscreen proxy for most viewers, Fanny early on confesses to Keats that “poems are a strain to work out,” but then volunteers to take lessons in poetry appreciation, which allows Keats to recommend an emotional, impressionistic reaction rather than an intellectual one. Writing her screenplay in a way that plainly speaks of another era and yet comes across as natural and unaffected, Campion works in snippets of Keats’ work at relevant moments, even under the end credits.
Although he makes a point of articulating his perplexed attitude about women, the slim, dreamily attractive Keats is clearly captivated by Fanny, who stands out by virtue of the direct gaze with which she meets all people and predicaments. All the same, she can scarcely throw off the constraints of family expectations and social norms, just as Keats feels unable and even unqualified to pursue a proper courtship with Fanny due to his poverty and lack of prospects.
For these and other reasons, which initially include the fatal (and foreshadowing) illness of Keats’ brother Tom and persistently involve Brown’s interference and the poet’s periodic absences, the great romance blossoms very slowly. Even at its height, it is physically expressed only by gentle kissing and caressing; actual consummation is not in the cards, and Campion stringently avoids even so much as a grand clinch or music-swelled embrace, permitting the emotions to be expressed largely through letters and verse.
Keats, who feels himself “dissolving” in his love for Fanny, also begins to dissipate physically from tuberculosis. Advised to move to a warmer climate, he decamps for Italy, where he succumbs. Rightly judging that, like the act of writing, endless coughing up of blood does not make for very edifying viewing, Campion conveys the climactic information as Fanny learns it, to palpably convulsive effect.
With brown hair pulled tightly back and a tad more filled out than before, Cornish is made to look plainer than she actually is, which better emphasizes the importance of Fanny’s character for Keats. The majority of her performance’s success rests in her eyes, which are remarked upon by Brown for their amber hue and which, one senses, see and process so much. All of Campion’s films center upon strong, complicated women, and Cornish’s Fanny takes her place among the most memorable of them.
What’s missing is an equally compelling sense of Keats’ singular attributes. Everything one reads about the poet emphasizes his extreme sensitivity to nature and his almost swooning reaction to sensory stimuli. While these qualities are embedded in the filmmaking here, most particularly in the work of production and costume designer Janet Patterson and cinematographer Greig Fraser (who previously shot the shorts “The Water Diary” and “The Lady Bug” for Campion), they are not so evident in the writing of Keats’ character or in the performance of Whishaw, which is appealing but not nearly as trenchant as that of his co-star.
Schneider’s oozing presence as Brown creates a constant sense of unease for Fanny, while Martin is entirely winning presence as Fanny’s redheaded little sister. Mark Bradshaw’s score reps a major plus.