Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal -yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
-John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn
The life of John Keats was a frequently troubled and brief one, punctuated by a burning brilliance of the heart and mind extinguished too soon. One of the youngest of the Romantic poets, Keats lived a life dedicated to his art and it cost him much in terms of financial stability, reputation and health. Dying at the age of 25 in Rome (of tuberculosis) he would survive on in his work–poems not much loved in his day would later be hailed as masterpieces. And yet, in his short life, Keats still had one great love, Fanny Brawne. Jane Campion’s Bright Star is the tender and elegant chronicle of that love and it is not a modern film in any respect; it honors and celebrates Keat’s romantic ideals, even when acknowledging that the reality of the world is sometimes their enemy.
Fanny and John met at the boarding house of her mother where he was living at the time with his friend and fellow writer Charles Armitage Brown. Even then, John was of fragile health and his necessity for imposing upon Brown was that he had expended all his income taking care of his dying brother Tom.
The film opens with a drawing room scene where the impetuous Fanny(Abbie Cornish) trades verbal barbs with the grousy Charles (Paul Schneider), who seems insistent on keeping Keats’s friendship exclusive to himself. When Brawne does manage to gain audience with John, she incites his interest immediately and he provides her with his latest volume of poems. Upon reading them, she declares that “I do not find your poems easy.” Keats cannot stop thinking about her, and the rather small homestead offers him ample opportunities for distraction by her presence.
The chaste but passionate courtship that follows is not sensationalized, sexualized or over-dramatized for benefit of the film. The warning signs are evident to both parties from the start; Brown’s glowering disapproval, Keats’ obvious poverty and worsening health, and Fanny and John’s refusal to allow these worldly concerns to deter or distill the intensity of their love. It has tragedy written all over it, but they are of the opinion their feelings cannot be helped. In fact, the gathering storm only infuses their passion and declaration for one another, which is confined mostly to holding hands, sharing letters and joyful glances. The movie’s most sensual and intimate moment involves a weary and lovesick Keats resting his head on Brawne’s shoulder.
The film is a triumph because of the way it chooses to tell its story. Jane Campion adopts a visual style that imitates and encompasses Keat’s lyrical wordcraft. Bright Star is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful films I’ve seen this year. The entire piece is emotionally charged by its imagery alone.
Idyll sequences of Fanny wandering through a field of blue flowers or the couple cherishing the opportunity to hold hands while a younger sister walks cluelessly in the foreground are perfect and complete unto themselves. The cinematography that romanticizes the realms of nature also observes the segregating and sometimes intimate confines of the Brawne household. The camera lingers over details that are only important to the two young lovers and we have the opportunity to share their immersion in the moment.
Abbie Cornish’s portrayal of Fanny Brawne is perhaps the movie’s sweetest surprise. The work she does here is not flashy nor does it appear complex on the surface. Cornish is radiant and steadfast and emotionally vulnerable in equal measure and she does not isolate these traits but lets them bleed together. She evokes the elemental and restless women conjured by Yeat’s poetic fantasies while at the same time reminding the audience that in her heart Fanny is still a very young woman easily undone or distressed by her own feelings.
Whishaw as John matches her burning ardor by dropping the stuffy academic visions of Keats and instead plays him as the misty eyed romantic that would spend days at a time carefully searching for the right words to personify a rain drop, or say, a nightingale. Together they solidify the film’s vision of unchecked romance as a heartening, powerful and occassionally dangerous thing. Paul Schneider, so often overlooked in other films, is poignant and effective as Charles Brown, a man who idealizes and objectifies Keats but realizes all too late that his platonic love for the man was never properly matched in his actions.
In the end, Bright Star is a film with the courage of its convictions and the skill and artistry to convey that vision to the audience. The emotional power of the picture is not reliant upon our approval of the character’s actions or even our attitude towards poetry. Instead, it seeks to sweep us up and remind that while we live in a world of guarded feelings and emotional conservation, there is benefit and strength in embracing unconditional love with our minds and our hearts. In a time when most pictures strive for brutal realism while cautiously hording passionate honesty, Bright Star cuts through the noise and delivers a cinematic romance that truly shines