Review: Bright Star
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Not familiar with the work of 19th century English poet John Keats? No matter. Let the great Jane Campion enlighten you and awaken your senses with her rapturous new film, “Bright Star,” which focuses on the last three years of Keats' tragically short life (he succumbed to tuberculosis at 25 in 1821) and his brief, yet earth-shaking affair with Fanny Brawne, the girl next door who became his muse and one and only love. After landing a screenplay Oscar and the Cannes Film Festival's Palme D'Or for “The Piano” in 1993, following that with less successful titles like 2003's “In the Cut,” and then remaining inactive until 2007, writer/director Campion returns with what is undoubtedly one of the finest movies of 2009. Romantic in every way, it beautifully captures a moment in time that, for two people, was momentous, and it contains more passion and feeling in its nuances than some films do in their entirety. I relished every moment and I long to see it again.
Ben Whishaw, whose impossibly chiseled face has popped up in recent titles like “Brideshead Revisited” and “I'm Not There,” is Keats, playing the poet as a scruffy, soulful blend of Johnny Depp and Keith Richards (perhaps someone should phone him for “Pirates 4”). Abbie Cornish, an Australian who was last seen playing an American in Kimberly Pierce's “Stop-Loss,” is Fanny, who's immediately established as headstrong, opinionated and also artistic – a fashion designer who creates all of her own stylish and colorful garments. The couple's initial interactions are not ones of instantaneous attraction. Misled by his meddling roommate and colleague, Charles Brown (the film's sleazy but pitiful villain, played tenaciously by Paul Schneider), Keats sees Fanny as a flirtatious fashionista, while she, by her own admission, has little knowledge of any poetry, let alone his. But both, we see, are curious, and Campion, exercising a restraint that's present in every component of this picture, lets the subtle sparks of their relationship slowly catch fire until the exhilaration of that first kiss is shared by the audience. Once the other characters – including Fanny's siblings and her mother, played with touching tenderness by Kerry Fox – are hip to the courtship, it has quietly ballooned into a fervid infatuation.
Inspired in part by the biography, “Keats,” by poet Andrew Motion, “Bright Star” – which gets its name from Keats' famous poem, presumably written about Fanny – claims that the affair, though peppered with roadblocks, lasted until Keats' untimely death. Campion shows the lovers in separate locations on that fateful day (she stayed in London while he fled to Rome for a healthier climate), but no less entwined, and, like all great love stories, tragedy aggrandizes their romance. So, too, do a number of additional, less conventional factors, such as Keats' actual letters to Fanny, which also inspired Campion and to which she had access throughout production. Simply knowing these documents – which surely do play a key role in the film – exist adds layers of appeal and validity to the pair's already captivating bond. Also, Keats and Fanny never consummated their love, giving it an uncommon, forever frozen innocence. And while the subject is brought up repeatedly, nor did they marry, for Keats, a penniless writer, lacked the means to support a wife even before he fell ill. Fanny, though fully encouraged, a la “Pride and Prejudice,” to marry into wealth, cares not about his empty pockets, and couldn't if she wanted to. “Bright Star” is a portrait of the truest kind of love: one that is inconvenient and insuppressible.
The beauty of this movie is often so great, it is chilling, which is to say I literally had chills while watching it. Lovingly photographed by Greig Fraser, it delivers a cool, continuous current of ravishing imagery, which Campion unfailingly clips or subdues in such a way that it never feels forced upon you. Her plain, lived-in interiors of white walls and dark wood, and gray-toned or sun-soaked exteriors of things like barren forests contrast wonderfully with the vibrant costumes (which are themselves especially meaningful since we watch Fanny make more than a few of them). And then there are the flowers, which on more than one occasion flood the bottom half of Campion's frame, and contribute to a scene with a purple dress that I'd call the film's best if it weren't preceded and followed by scenes that affected me just as deeply. Gorgeous visuals – a bedroom filled with butterflies, Keats resting atop a tree in bloom – fade into one another here with the smoothness of silk. All the while there is the alternately playful and heartbreaking original music by Mark Bradshaw, and, best of all, Keats' own words, which, whether spoken in voiceover or between the two lovers, are together perhaps one of the most beautiful soundtracks one could ask for.
Whishaw, his voice sharp and articulate, is mesmerizing when reciting these lines, as well as when giving life to Campion's own verse about the nature of poetry itself. That said, he does not speak unnecessarily or at great length, nor is he a wellspring of emotion. Played by Whishaw with an old-fashioned aura of mystery, inner demons and sly charm, his emotions are not written outright on his face or in his actions because they are reserved for things that matter most like his work and his woman. Though certainly reciprocating her feelings, he is presented, more or less, as the tall, dark and somewhat dangerous object of obsession for Fanny, who is the principal character, and who, as played by Cornish, steals the show with ease. In a recent interview, Campion said that Cornish's performance “puts her in a category with the top actors of her generation,” and that's no simple biased praise. There isn't a single identifiable falsity in Cornish's work, a perfect match for the film's unforced naturalism. There couldn't have been a more aptly-titled project in which to showcase the breakthrough of this 27-year-old actress, who is indeed its radiant epicenter. The intensity in her eyes alone speaks volumes, her smile will astound you, and a shattering scene in the film's conclusion all but cements her a place among this year's Best Actress nominees.
Of course, what Campion has done is translated Keats' work (and life, and inspiration) into the language of cinema, thus creating a film that is its own kind of poetry. “Bright Star” is lyrical in ways beyond the inclusion of Keats' sonnets in the script – there is a fresh and flowing immediacy to it that makes it honest and ageless. Keats and Fanny created their own private world. Campion re-envisioned it and now it is ours to experience. It is, as Keats says of poetry, “an experience beyond thought.” See it with someone you love, or, better still, someone you can't bear not to.