Jane Campion's Bright Star manages the difficult feat of being both sentimental and fatalistic. Its resolution is a foregone conclusion—anyone with access to a Norton Anthology probably knows that the love affair between the Romantic poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne was doomed by his lack of prospects and frail health, which led to his death at age 25. But the director handles their love with a rapt intensity that elevates the movie from standard biopic material.
Campion's Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) is a gifted yet scuffling poet, unable to understand why the public rejects his work. His fragile health has affected his outlook on life and its possibilities. He's initially not attracted to Brawne (the Australian actress Abbie Cornish), whose prowess as a seamstress rivals his with imagery and rhymes. At first Keats is more attuned to the lure of nature than he is to her. Brawne, no demure ingénue, informs Keats in turn that his poetry doesn't exactly thrill her.
Yet even in these early meetings there's a clear energy and electricity between them, something that displeases Brawne's family as well as Keats' patron and close friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). In early scenes the dismissive Brown looms as the film's closest thing to a villain, but his edges and nuances become clearer over time. All but alone in recognizing Keats' genius in the moment—he frets over his inability to boost his friend's fortunes—he sees Brawne as a diversion and distraction.
Still, Keats and Brawne grow closer, their love becoming obvious and evident even as mounting fiscal and personal problems pose obstacles to their union. Even though we know Keats is headed toward that place "where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies," as he wrote in "Ode to a Nightingale," Campion doesn't let the story's somber outcome outweigh the joy and happiness her subjects find in each other. Keats' facility with language lets him express his desire and love for Brawne in emphatic fashion, while she responds to him without regard for the rules that supposedly govern how unmarried couples publicly behave and react to each other.
Capturing the artistic process on film is as difficult as scooping water with a net. In Campion's hard focus, the physical details of Brawne's work—the movie's first shot is of the painstaking threading of a needle's eye—have a poetic exactness that comes across just as strongly as Keats' craftsmanship. Bright Star shows more stylistic restraint than earlier Campion films such as The Piano and Portrait of a Lady, but don't mistake that for a loss of nerve. She may accurately convey the eloquence of 19th century poetry and England's cultural heritage, but she also depicts that society's rampant class bias and sexism with bite.
Cornish's radiant, finely shaded portrayal never makes Brawne a modern-day crusader. However frustrated she may be by the 19th century insistence on equating personal value with net worth, she doesn't denounce or ridicule Keats for not being able to move beyond it. Whishaw makes a touchingly fragile and impassioned Keats, and together, though fully clothed, they embody real intimacy as well as the power of language. Enhanced by Mozart and other classical composers on the soundtrack and by Greig Fraser's gorgeous camerawork, Bright Star—as Keats famously said of a thing of beauty—will never pass into nothingness.
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