Written and directed by Jane Campion
Starring Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider and Antonia Campbell-Hughes
Goes well with: Sense and Sensibility, Atonement, Miss Potter
Films about writers rarely succeed, primarily because filmmaking and literature are just so entirely different from one another. Capturing on film the agony and the ecstasy that goes into writing is almost impossible, because, for the most part, the act of writing is, I'm sad to say, dull. Really dull. Yes, whether it's a hipster crouched over a MacBook Pro or a Romantic poet diddling with his quill, the act is essentially the same, putting words down on (sometimes digital) paper. It's just not that exciting, no matter what Edwin Decker would have you believe.
Still, Bright Star takes on the writer's lament and wisely skirts the issue by making the act of writing look as boring as it actually is. It's absolutely understandable why the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), now recognized as one of the great wordsmiths of the Romantic period, would be so easily distracted by the cute girl next door. That girl was Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), who's been generally maligned over the years as the flirtatious tease whose occasional attention ended up causing Keats more misery than pleasure. Jane Campion's movie makes her the centerpiece and more than redeems her reputation, profiling their relationship as thoroughly real and romantic and destined for an unhappy ending, with or without the pretty words.
So, sure, this one could be considered a chick flick. It's set in the early 1800s in England, after all. But it's made by Campion, who's best known for The Piano, so it's real label should actually be “art-house.” Regardless, you don't need to be a chick or an art-house geek to enjoy Cornish's performance. She's the perky sort who isn't interested in getting hitched just to keep herself in frills and frocks, and the relationship between her and Keats forms sweetly and organically. Even if you don't like period pieces, don't care for chick flicks or don't get poetry, it's hard not to want to see Fanny and Keats end up happy.
Of course, history tells us that their relationship was doomed from the start. Keats died in Italy after a violent bout of tuberculosis, and it wasn't until the 1930s that letters Brawne sent to Keats' sister surfaced, shedding light on her true feelings for him. Those emotions are on full display in Bright Star, which is less the story of John Keats than it is about two people who are going to have a hard time staying together. Marriages were essentially business arrangements, and Keats, penniless when he died, wasn't a particularly thrilling prospect in the eyes of society.
Additionally, Keats' friend and benefactor, the writer Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), saw Fanny as little more than a nuisance, a distraction that kept his friend from his work. Schneider has quietly become one of the most interesting actors working today, a good-looking guy toiling in supporting roles—and hopefully recognizing that those are often the most interesting. He's given memorable turns in Lars and the Real Girl and The Assassination of Jesse James and in his supporting gig on the NBC show Parks and Recreation. He steals his scenes here as a boorish, self-absorbed jerk who's absolutely jealous of the attention Keats pays his girl. And yet, he also recognizes that her affection, even though it inspires him, pulls Keats from his work, work that Brown's able to recognize as being something that will outlast them both. He's an oddly tragic figure, a bad guy whose selfish intentions are actually good.
Schneider and Cornish are what make this film stay with you. By creating very real individuals, they help Campion overturn the period-piece stigma. Yes, it's about a poet, but the real poetry is found in the relationship on screen. All of that said, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the movie moves about as quickly as cross-country travel did back in Keats' day. It's art-house slow, and even though there are some lovely pieces to look at, this may be a bright star, but it is not a shooting one.
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