The web has opened up a new dimension to our lives. We have instant communication with people we haven’t seen in twenty or thirty years. We have news and information at the ready. We don’t really notice what we’re missing until somehow it drifts back in. One of those things is poetry, the subject of Jane Campion’s beautiful, meditative, and dreamy film about the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. That someone would make a film about John Keats, a man whose life ambition was to write poetry, feels so foreign given what most films dwell in these days.
Leave it to Jane Campion to tell a sentimental story in an unsentimental way. With the help of the brilliant young actress, Abbie Cornish, and the heartbreaking Ben Whishaw, this isn’t your typical bodice-ripper. In fact, for Campion, it is really quite tame. Her films tend to dip into the erotic more often than not, but this is as tame as you can get.
What comes through in Bright Star is, well, John Keats – his words, what might have inspired him, the imagery from his work bleeds through every frame; this was a film made by a deep admirer of the writer’s work. That is perhaps why the film has a distancing quality, and never quite pulls you into the passionate love that must have existed between Fanny Brawne and John Keats. The two spent much time apart and had a secret engagement that could never be realized, partly because Keats was not economically able to marry Fanny, and partly because he was so ill he died shortly thereafter.
The film is called Bright Star after the famous Keats poem that Fanny inspired. The film sets out to illuminate this unwavering flame. Campion’s direction is understated here, not emotionally showy in any way. She’ll cut away from a scene if it is getting too heavy. It is almost as though she wants her audience to feel the same kind of frustration Keats and Brawne must have felt with society opposed to their natural union.
Much has been made of Cornish’s turn as Brawne. She is deserving of the praise and is reminiscent of a young Nicole Kidman. The only thing missing is the kinky red hair. Cornish’s Brawne is mysterious, innocent of life in many ways, curious, ready to fall in love as any woman would upon encountering someone as gifted as John Keats. Even as Keats withers away, even penniless, slightly effeminate — Keats is still the stuff that swoons are made on; no one could begrudge Fanny Brawne eternal devotion.
The film is worth seeing on the big screen to gaze upon the stunning visuals of Campion, working with cinematographer Grieg Fraser and costumer Janet Patterson. You will not see a prettier film this year. In the end I found I wanted more from the lovers. What I wanted, I’m sure, they could not give. Campion could never be relied upon to embellish their story. That wasn’t the movie she set out to make. She went looking for the truth.