by George Sax
Not Forever in a Sweet Unrest
Has there ever been an English-language film with such an excruciatingly sad love story as the one in writer/director Jane Campion’s Bright Star? I can’t recall one. The film’s star-crossed lovers are historical characters, one of them the great English Romantic poet John Keats. But Campion hasn’t allowed that fact to inflate her film into a mere biographical dramatization. Bright Star has an intimate scale; its dimensions are human and personal.
Campion (The Piano) has carefully fixed the film in the historical record without letting it stiffen into formal biopic plausibility. In one scene, young Keats (Ben Whishaw) sits down to conduct an informal poetry lesson with his neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the girl he’s falling in love with, and pauses to question whether he’s suited to the role, given his ambivalent attitude to women. This rueful, diffident remark is taken from a piece of Keat’s correspondence, but Campion and Whishaw render it persuasively touching and personally consistent.
It’s 1818, and Keats is sharing quarters in one-half a dwelling in Hampstead Heath with his slightly older friend, mentor and admirer, Scotsman Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Eighteen-year-old Fanny lives in the other half of the house with her widowed mother (Kerry Fox) and two younger siblings. Keats himself is only 23, and will die at 25 in a cruel lonely self-exile in Rome, just as he has begun to establish his place in English letters.
The film’s Brawne is a bright, capable, honest girl, much as she seems to have been in life. She’s also a skilled seamstress and dressmaker. In a telling riposte to Brown, who snidely mocks her and disparages her to Keats, she says her work makes money—unlike his writing efforts. Queried later about her poetic interests she admits it’s “a strain” to unravel a poem’s meaning (a sentiment many better educated contemporary students would echo). Cornish imparts a charmingly callow but open, intelligent quality to Fanny.
Bright Star (the title comes from the first two words of Keat’s “Last Sonnet,” inspired by Fanny) doesn’t explicitly indicate what precipitated this relationship between two so unlike individuals, but it may have been those aspects of her personality that drew Keats to her. An uncommon young man for his or any other age, he acted out of strong ethical impulses and standards and shared the leftist political ideas and tendencies of other Romantic writers. Whishaw compellingly captures not only this seriousness, but also his nature’s lyrical subjectivity and courage.
Campion and the actors’ portrayal of this pair’s largely chaste but nevertheless passionate mutual attachment throbs with the hope and anguish of young lives yearning for a union they can’t reach. The film leans toward Fanny’s point of view but its focus isn’t narrowed to her. And the director has created an ambiance, a persuasive cinematic environment for her story. It’s a provincial Regency England that’s less glamorously handsome than those in most of the television and film versions of Jane Austen novels set in the same period. But it’s not severe—some of Greg Fraser’s cinematography is striking—and it just seems right.
There are a few subsidiary lapses, as when Keats and Fanny too cutely trade recitations of the stanzas of one of his poems. But Bright Star is a moving, often engrossing film, and one of the most impressive ones about a historical or literary figure ever made.
Watch the trailer for Bright Star
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