Film review by: Witney Seibold
If I were to tell you, in a theoretical capacity, that Jane Campion was making a film about the romance between the doomed young John Keats and his one true love Fanny Brawne, you would instantly form a film in your head. The film that Campion ended up making is exactly the same as that film you pictured. It is melancholy, a touch melodramatic, had plenty of angsty moments of romantic chest-pounding, and overflowed reams of significant-sounding quotations.
Actually, I think I’m being a bit unfair. That description doesn’t capture how mature “Bright Star” is. In period romances, there seems to be a tendency to over-dramatize the material. i.e. Every pond shimmers with warm orange sunlight. Every sky is full of gorgeous glowing clouds and a flock of quietly honking geese. Every outfit is immaculate. Every image is Romantic-with-a-capital-R, and every story beat is predictable. “Bright Star” steers away from that. It doesn’t do the opposite by muddying things up (which would be just as phony; see Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” for that), but rather gives the Romantic Melodrama a much-needed realist bent; When we see Fanny playing amongst the butterflies which she has captures and set free in her bedroom, the film is very careful to immediately cut to the butterflies’ corpse begin swept into a dustpan.
For the most part, the film plays like a brief biography you get at the beginning of a Keats volume: “Keats had an intense affair with a woman named Fanny Brawne, but was in debt, and, due to failing health, had to leave the country. Despite financial help from poet Charles Brown, his health continued to deteriorate. He died in Italy in 1821. He was 25.” We never hear what happened to Fanny in those descriptions. Campion tells her story from Brawne’s perspective.
Keats is played by Ben Whishaw from “Perfume,” and gives a wonderful performance that is human and believable. Brawne is played by Abbie Cornish from “Somersault” and “Stop-Loss” and also manages to make a fashion-obsessed, nineteenth-century twentysomething seem like someone we can relate to without stooping to modern-day mannerisms. Brawne spent her days designing dresses and going to parties and waiting to marry into money. She falls in love with a few lines of Keats’ poetry, and they soon develop a regard. Keats is being supported and protected by his drinking buddy Brown is played by Paul Schneider, and is terrific. Brown is the kind of lacerating wit which, he hopes, tears down at least one soul a day. But, y’know, in a friendly way. Keats and Brown have ambitions to write a grandiose poetic epic, but Keats quiet demeanor is enough of a distraction without his enamored coming around.
I liked how subdued and mature this film was. Most period romances have the lesson that the heroines were ahead of their time, and if they were only living in modern times, then they could marry whoever they like, and class structures be damned. This one lets us know that the characters are instinctively bound by class structures, and are no beholden to a modern sensibility. Dare I say, it seemed historically accurate.
Unfortunately, that didn’t make “Bright Star” that much fun. I was never bored, mind you, but I wasn’t heartbroken or in love either. I felt more educated than moved. Which can be fine, but, I don’t know, like the star-crossed bright ones, I longed for more.