Bright Star, which tells the brief story of the romance between poet John Keats and his neighbor, Fanny Brawne, gets off to a stuffy, Masterpiece Theater sort of start, but the accumulating emotion, centered around his untimely death, crept up on me, and made the film a very rewarding experience.
Written and directed by Jane Campion, the film is set in the years 1818 to 1820. Keats (Ben Whishaw), in his early twenties, struggles with poverty as he pursues his calling as a poet. He relies on the generosity of his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), also a poet. Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is from the middle-class, with a younger brother and sister, and excels as a seamstress. The act of stitching, whether of Brawne's threads or Keats' words, is a prevalent theme throughout the film.
Keats has limited renown and less money, so a marriage with Brawne is out of the question. Brown and Brawne share a mutual disdain, which makes their housing situation difficult when the Brawne family move into the same house with Brown and Keats. The center section of the film sags a bit when we get different iterations of how unfair it all is that though they love each other, it's just not to be between our two lovebirds.
The final act, though, is very moving. When Keats stumbles in after getting soaked in the rain, the savvy viewer will get that "uh-oh" feeling, even if they don't know their literary history. Watching the principles come to grips with the inevitable is exquisite drama, and when Fanny's mother (Kerry Fox) acquiesces to their engagement it would take a stone heart not to be affected.
Given that her movie is about a poet who used vivid natural imagery, Campion's film is something of a visual poem. There are exquisite scenes from all four seasons, with abundant uses of natural beauty (the first line of Keats we hear in the film is "A thing of beauty is a joy forever"). There are some remarkable shots: a servant in a kitchen, looking like something out of Vermeer; Fanny leaning back on her bed, flush with the excitement of love, a curtain billowing out of a window before her; a room full of butterflies; a long shot of three figures stalking angrily across a meadow. Full credit should be given to the cinematographer, Greig Fraser.
Cornish dominates the film. At first she is like a Jane Austen heroine, bristlingly ahead of her time, but then playing two basic notes: pining for John Keats, and grieving for him. Despite these limitations, she excels. She reminded me a lot of Charlize Theron, but without the self-consciousness. Her scene of anguish after learning of Keats' death is draining to watch. She will certainly be on the short list of Oscar hopefuls.
Whishaw is also fine, playing a consumptive genius without sentimentality and fully-shaded. One can really believe he is a poet, too. There's a great moment for English majors when he's called upon to recite a poem and responds with "When I have fears I may cease to be," and then can't remember it (this was at a time when people recited poetry for amusement, a charming thing that almost makes up for the abysmal health conditions). But the best performances may be by two supporting players, Schneider and Fox. Schneider, almost unrecognizable from his current role on TV's Parks and Recreation, plays Brown as a brash, bearish man who is protective of Keats but lacking in tact. When the arc of his character is complete, and he realizes he has failed his friend, Schneider nails the scene brilliantly. Fox, who has less to do, is an integral player in that it is she that sets the tone of John and Fanny's relationship, and when she changes the film changes with her.
A final note to complain about boorish movie audiences: over the closing credits Whishaw recites "Ode on a Nightingale." Nevertheless, patrons at the theater I attended stood up and put their coats on, chatting loudly, their rudeness on full display. And these were not teenagers, but respectable Princeton citizens of a certain age. Another reason why I'm watching more and more films at home.