Bright Star is a return to top form for director Jane Campion. Like The Piano and Portrait of a Lady before it, Bright Star savors subtlety and gorgeously composed frames while telling the story of an intelligent, melancholy young woman. Campion thrives in the period piece. She strikes a balance between the fanfare and froufrou of a Merchant Ivory production and the all-out bleakness and watery English light of a BBC made-for-TV movie. Bright Star is not afraid of understatement or letting brief snatches of Keats’ poetry speak for themselves.
As viewers familiar with Romantic Poetry will know, John Keats led a short and tragic life in early 19th century England. Keats’ poetry was unappreciated during his lifetime, though today he holds a place in the canon as one of the most important of the Romantics. Bright Star chronicles the Hampstead period of Keats’ life, during which he lived outside of London with his friend Charles Brown, and composed the most important poems of his career.
Fanny Brawne was 18-years-old when she met Keats. Abbie Cornish, known mainly for her role as Ryan Phillipe’s gal pal before her turn in Bright Star, is a pleasure to watch as Fanny. Fanny is a seamstress, and more interested in mushroom collars and perfect pleats than she is in poetry. Cornish gives Fanny the delicate combination of uncertainty and zest of a girl in love for the first time. At times she’s perfectly measured and composed, while at others throws herself across her bed and tells her mother when she doesn’t hear from Keats, it’s as if she’s died, and sends her sister downstairs to fetch a knife so she can kill herself. She’s funny, too, when lying about how much Milton she’s read, or telling off Mr. Brown.
Ben Winshaw portrays John Keats, and seems particularly suited to play fragile Englishmen with poor constitutions—Winshaw was also excellent and similarly doomed and sickly as Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. Winshaw’s Keats is slight, underweight and suffering the double blows of the death of his younger brother and a complete lack of commercial success.
Cornish and Winshaw have a comfortable chemistry, as though they’ve been friends for years, but lack outright passion. But this is in keeping with the restrained tone of the film, and the period. Their relationship faces serious obstacles even before Keats falls ill—being poor, he can’t afford to marry. Keats charms Fanny with his poetry and witticisms, and the two begin meeting for regular poetry lessons, a respectable excuse to spend time together. Keats finds Fanny intriguing because she’s outspoken and honest. She also manages to develop an appreciation for poetry, particularly as written by Keats.
While in Hampstead, Keats lived with his friend Charles Armitage Brown (played by Paul Schneider), who was no great fan of Fanny’s, and she detested him in return. Much of the romantic tension in the film comes from the triangle created between Keats, Brown, and Fanny. Brown was an aspiring poet before realizing he was no good, and decided to support other better artists (namely Keats) instead. He sees Fanny as a frivolous distraction from Keats’ writing, and derides her as being interested only in “flirting and fashion”. For her part, Fanny thinks Brown is brutish and unpleasant. The two of them compete throughout the film for Keats’ attentions, each believing they want (and can provide) what’s best for the poet.
The settings and cinematography in Bright Star are the most pleasurable part of watching the film. Shot on location in Hampstead Heath, Campion and cinematographer Greig Fraser make great use of the natural world using the changing seasons to highlight the emotional progression of the film. When Fanny and Keats share their first kiss, it’s early summer and the whole world is in bloom. The two of them walk among head-high reeds, over bluebell walks and through daffodil fields. The light is warm and rich and yellow. It’s a very perfect conception of summer, and we fall in love along with Fanny and Keats. During the season, Fanny’s bedroom windows are always open, and Keats climbs to the top of a blossoming tree. These scenes are infused with physical beauty and ethereal hope.
Light and air also play an important role. Even in wintertime, Fanny is often situated in front of windows doing her sewing, her face bathed in light. Later in the summer, a few weeks after they’ve first kissed, Keats leaves Fanny to go on a walking tour of Scotland with Brown. Fanny is devastated and angry with Keats until he starts sending her letters.
“I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days. Three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” Keats writes to Fanny. She commissions her brother and sister to collect butterflies and sets them loose in her room. The butterflies drift lazily in the thick summer air, and Fanny encloses herself in a cocoon of longing for Keats.
Of course, this ecstasy is as short lived as the summer itself. After Keats returns, he falls ill with tuberculosis and he and Fanny must face the possibility of his death. Keats is recommended to travel to Italy for the mild climate. Bright Star ends with the simplicity and elegance it has carried throughout the story. Campion uses dialogue sparingly, and so each word carries its own weight. Fanny and Keats say goodbye by candlelight the night before he’s to leave for Italy. “Let’s pretend I will return in spring,” Keats tells Fanny calmly as she weeps. When Fanny receives the news that Keats has died, she walks out onto the Heath. Now cold and covered in frost, Fanny walks reciting Keats’ poetry by heart, a fitting and intimate memorial.
Special features include a single deleted scene, and a series of short interviews with Campion billed as featurettes. While interesting, the interviews are too brief. Additionally, for a period piece, I expect generous special features concerning costume design and locations — two topics the interviews touch on, but do not fully explore.