BRIGHT STAR (Dir. Jan Campion, 2009)
A poem isn’t something to “work out”, John Keats (Ben Whishaw) tells Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). It’s something to “luxuriate in” he explains. Keats scorns the craft of poetry believing that it must come as naturally to a poet as the leaves comes to the trees. Brawne is quite taken with Keats with a fascination that quickly becomes infatuation, but is it for him or for his words? The film seems to be in the same boat; Keats is a poor man who could never fully provide for Brawne, yet as history later confirms, he is rich in romantic poetry and that is all she cares about.
In her first film since IN THE CUT (2003), Jane Campion returns to the picturesque period piece palette of her breakthrough THE PIANO (1993). She gives us the last 3 years of John Keats’ life rendered un-romantically but beautifully nevertheless. He spends his days lounging around his Hamstead house with his dear friend and writing partner Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider) seemingly waiting for inspiration to arise. Scene stealer Schneider portrays Brown as a boorish lout who is over-protective of Keats. However as Keats suffers a severe bout of tuberculosis, Brown’s stance becomes more and more valid.
Brawne falls for the doomed poet and bathes in his words whether they come from the printed page or a folded letter, but knows that her mother and society in general would not approve. We, of course, are aware that there is no happy ending here but even if one has no knowledge of any biographical information the tale is told with such an engaging emphasis on the fragility of love that its pathos is no less powerful.
With no showy tricks or stylish staging, Campion provides a sad splendor to what in someone else's hands might amount to just another costume drama. Whishaw, who has portrayed other notable tortured artists such as Bob Dylan (I’M NOT THERE) and Keith Richards (STONED), brings a quiet passion to the part of Keats which can be summoned simply in his suggestive smirk. It’s Cornish’s movie though and her performance is as much a work of beauty as the film surrounding her. As Whishaw’s recitation of Keat’s famous lines serenaded the end credits it was hard for me to leave my seat. For BRIGHT STAR isn’t just a fine film to take in and then exit, it’s one to luxuriate in.