Bright StarReviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 09/18/09 04:54:05
(Worth A Look)
After a six-year hiatus, Jane Campion ("In the Cut," "Holy Smoke," "The Portrait of a Lady," "An Angel at My Table," "Sweetie"), a filmmaker best known for "The Piano," the 1993 period drama that won Academy Awards for Best Actress (Holly Hunter), Best Supporting Actress (Anna Paquin), and Best Original Screenplay (Campion), returns with "Bright Star,' an intimate, meditative period romantic drama based on the on three-year relationship between Romantic poet John Keats (who died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis) and Fanny Brawne, his sometime neighbor (they never married, due to his ill health and poor financial prospects). Lushly photographed, thoughtfully written, subtlety acted, and skillfully directed, "Bright Star" serves as a reminder of why Campion remains, contrary to the opinions of some (unnamed) critics, a world-class filmmaker worthy of the description.Keats (Ben Whishaw) initially meets Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) at a social gathering outside London in Hampstead Heath, England. Keats isn’t impressed with the fashion-conscious Fanny. Fanny dismisses poetry and literature. That changes when Fanny helps Keats’ younger brother, Tom, ill from the tuberculosis that claimed their mother and would later claim Keats three years. Keats offers to teach Fanny about poetry, much to the displeasure of Keats’ best friend, benefactor, and sometime roommate Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider). Contrary to Brown's fears about Fanny’s presence in Keats’ life, Keats finds inspiration for his poetry in his burgeoning relationship with Fanny. While Fanny’s younger siblings, Samuel (Thomas Sangster) and Margaret 'Toots' (Edie Martin) take a liking to Keats, Fanny’s widowed mother (Kerry Fox) sees Keats as an obstacle to marrying Fanny to a man of means.
Unable to consummate their relationship, Keats and Fanny channel their emotions into other activities, including love letters Keats and Fanny exchange over their three-year relationship. The letters, along with the poetry that Keats wrote after he began his relationship with Fanny, form the foundation for Bright Star (the title’s taken from one of Keats’ poems, but it’s also symbolic of Keats’ brief life and his relationship with Fanny). Once Keats' health deteriorates (he arrives one night, coughing blood), the end of his relationship with Fanny nears. As his death nears, Keats' friends argue in favor of sending him to the warmer, more hospitable Italian where they hope (against hope) that he'll recover (he doesn't), forcing Keats and Fanny to part prematurely.
Aided by Keats letters and Andrew Motion’s well-regarded Keats biography, Campion wrote Keats and Fanny as strong, well-rounded characters with complex inner lives. Fanny expresses her creativity through fashion, designing her own colorful clothes. She’s introduced wearing a red dress and suggests Keats spruce up his wardrobe with a new waistcoat during their first meeting. She also refuses to sugarcoat her opinion of Keats’ poetry, but also accepts her own limitations in understanding poetry (she briefly hires Keats to teach her poetry). On one, albeit superficial level, Fanny resembles a Jane Austen character: her desire for independence strains against the social conventions of early 19th century England, but there's no happily ever after waiting for her and Keats.
Campion filled out the Bright Star cast with talented actors. As Fanny, Cornish fulfills the promise she’s shown in supporting roles (e.g., Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Stop-Loss, A Good Year) in the past. She imbues Fanny with a persuasive mix of vulnerability, stubbornness, and self-awareness. As the sickly Keats, Whishaw matches Cornish’s expressiveness with expressiveness of his own, albeit more flamboyantly given that he’s playing a dying, consumptive poet. Keats is nothing if not a Romantic cliché, but Campion reinvigorates the idea of the dying poet through nimble writing, often relying on the silences between characters to convey deeper meanings words can’t. It’s an irony, of course, given that Keats defines himself through words.Campion imbues "Bright Star" with a potent, almost intoxicating sensual intensity, filling the frame with color, light, and shadow, each used to underscore a relevant emotion, without tipping into melodrama (quite an accomplishment given the subject matter). Campion found strong collaborators in cinematographer Greg Fraser ("The Boys Are Back, ""The Water Diary," "Spider"), production designer (and longtime collaborator) Janet Patterson ("Holy Smoke," "Portrait of a Lady," "The Piano"), and composer Mark Bradshaw ("The Water Diary").
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