Director: Jane Campion
Although it played to good reviews at Cannes, I have to admit to being content to giving ‘Bright Star’ a wide berth. I’ve always had a pretty agnostic approach to a certain kind of “quality” period drama. I was able to attend a preview screening of ‘Bright Star’ and it’s an attitude that I’m rather ashamed by now. My pre-film expectations might have been low, but I left feeling exhilarated and incredibly impressed. Working from the biography of Keats by Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, Campion’s film depicts the three year love affair between the Romantic poet and Fanny Brawne. What helps is that both lead actors are superb. Ben Whishaw combines sensitivity, compassion and good humour in his portrayal of Keats, whilst the Australian actress Abbie Cornish reveals Fanny to be an intelligent, progressive, ‘modern’ and independent young woman. Together, they create a love affair that is refreshing and original. The concern about focusing solely on this love affair is that it could easily degenerate into a simpering, mawkish episode but Campion ensures this isn’t the case. The origins are platonic; whilst Fanny admires his poetry, she doesn’t fall head over heels for it, and even tells Keats so. This is a relationship that slowly develops, frustrated by the Victorian moral code – Keats was eternally penniless and thus could never propose. Yet once they fall in love and declare so, Campion depicts the relationship partially through Keats’ own poetry. It’s easy to think that the romantic poetry that Keats worked on was because of the dizzying joy of his love for Fanny; never more so than in the sonnet that provides the film with its title. Never before has poetry been transferred so effortlessly to the screen.
As we know, there’s an inevitable tragic ending for this relationship, but it’s never overplayed or dwelled upon. Keats’ death is revealed only through a letter than his friend, Brown, gives to Fanny. Campion uses a short sequence of his coffin being carried, but otherwise it’s never overexaggerated from dramatic effect. That’s because Campion knows it’s the happiness the pair shared throughout their brief affair that’s the focus of her film, not the tragic illness that separated them. Campion retains a stunning eye for detail and for a brilliant shot, starting with the film’s opening sequence of intense close ups of Fanny sewing, but never more evident than in the stunning moment when Fanny is captured in a field of bluebells, reading Keats poetry, and falling in love with both the man and his writing. This is a film where nature’s beauty and love overshadows the literary writers block that Keats and Brown endure, though Keats seems only inspired towards greatness upon discovering his feelings for Fanny. In many ways, ‘Bright Star’ embodies the elements of the run-of-the-mill period drama; impeccable acting, sharp writing, high production/costume values, and this is indeed true, but there’s a genuine warmth at work. It never feels studied or aiming to be something it’s not. It’s a dizzying, delirious examination of love and certainly one of the finest films of the year.