Bright Star

Bright Star, writer-director Jane Campion’s first film in six years, tells the story of the English romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his relationship with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Their love affair was short and unconsummated, cut short by the poet’s death from tuberculosis in 1821, at the age of 25. She was just 18. Loosely based on Andrew Motion’s biography of the poet and the 40 surviving letters he wrote to Fanny, Bright Star is a sublimely lush and tender film about star-crossed love bolstered by a delicate treatment and exemplary acting performances.

His first book having been published to general indifference, the penniless Keats arrives in a leafy corner of Hampstead to stay at the house of his friend and patron Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Fanny, the girl next door, is a quick-witted young woman who lives with her mother (Kerry Fox), younger brother Samuel (Thomas Sangster) and darling little sister Toots (Edie Martin). Fanny’s beauty and wit offers the young poet respite from days spent sitting in dark, smoky rooms narrating his poems in a near-trance to Brown. Dark-eyed and wan, Keats is lost in melancholy, distraught by the death of his younger brother and by his perilous financial situation. Fanny recognises his anguish and makes a determination to get to know him, and his work, arranging lessons in appreciating poetry and having him eat at her table. But Brown, who is footing the bill, sees Fanny as an unnecessary distraction, a nuisance whose incautious flirting will deprive the poet of the time he needs to write. At the same time, Fanny’s mother regards Keats as a charming houseguest, but without any means, an unacceptable match for her eldest daughter.

The standardised treatment for a literary biopic would be to concentrate on the poet’s struggle with his muse. Campion does something far more interesting with the material, she makes Fanny the focus of her story. The film opens, not with an inky quill crossing paper, but with a scene where Fanny sits at her bureau embroidering a piece of cloth. The young woman is a 19th century fashionista; a dedicated amateur seamstress who delights in clothing and style and boasts that hers is “the only gown with a triple-tiered mushroom collar in the whole of Hampstead.” When a jealous Brown offers a snide remark about her self-designed clothing (“It’s the well-stitched Miss Brawne”), she mentions that at least she makes some money from her craft.

Nothing of Fanny’s correspondence with Keats has survived, so the director is free to create a woman who would be, within the restrictions of the time she lived in, as inspired by fashion, stitching and needlework as her poet love is by words. Her emotional journey becomes the engine of the film, as the poet and his poems fill the wondrously detailed background. This delicate treatment extends to the intimate pacing, which is carefully graduated to allow the chaste lovers to come together naturally. We know their love affair will not last, but Campion presents their joy in each other in such a precise and vibrant manner, that knowledge doesn’t intrude on the story.

There are poetic graces too in the telling, with Campion’s static camera searching out stolen frames of everyday life in the household, piling on the detail to create an immersive world. These moments are counterpoised with grand dramatic sweeps that climax in heaving gulps, a sun-dappled kiss, a heavy loss, a long separation. Campion favours a striking image to a page of dialogue, so conversations are short and sparse. Saying that, there is a fascinating scene early in the story where Keats responds to Fanny’s sincere questions about the proper understanding of poetry that seems to capture the meaning of the film itself. “A poem needs understanding through the senses”, the poet tells her. “The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought”. It’s not being overly lyrical to suggest that the same is true of Bright Star.

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