London 1818: Twenty three year old John Keats (Ben Whishaw) dedicates himself to writing poetry, despite having no means to support himself, living with his long-time friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider). When he meets his neighbour Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a flirtatious 18 year old obsessed with designing her own distinctive clothes, their relationship develops from a playful flirtation to a connection of souls and a life-long commitment.
Review by Louise Keller:
Like a bright star that shines from the heavens, Jane Campion's film about the doomed love between the poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne is exquisitely beautiful, but keeps us at arm's length. No doubt Campion wants it that way, but for me, I would like to have become more involved emotionally. This is a film about mood and longing and Campion is a master at both. It is through Keats' poetic letters to Fanny that he is able to best express his love, so it is fitting that Campion uses them as a compass for her screenplay.
Set in 1818 Hampstead, we become accustomed to everyday life as part of the middle class Brawne family. Abbie Cornish shines brightly as 18 year old Fanny, who spends her days fastidiously designing and sewing stylish clothes but after meeting Ben Whishaw's penniless poet John Keats, living next door with his protective and often abrasive friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), she can think of nothing else but him. One of the film's loveliest imagery is when Keats muses in a letter his fantasy to spend three days with her as a butterfly, than a lifetime without her; her bedroom subsequently becomes a butterfly farm.
If poetry does not come as easily as leaves to a tree, it better not come at all, says Keats, when Fanny asks to be taught about the art of painting images with words. There is no sex or electric chemistry; theirs is a connection of spirits. His love is as ethereal as the poem Bright Star he writes for her. She loves him with intensity reminiscent of teenage infatuation; she is physically ill when he is not around. They are in love with the idea of being in love. Perhaps this is why the relationship feels remote. Theirs is a doomed love affair with Keats' lack of prospects and ill-health being insurmountable obstacles.
The film looks ravishing with Greig Fraser's cinematography capturing every shade and nuance of the beautiful landscape with its striking fields of brightly coloured flowers. It is the external things - like the beauty of the changing of the seasons - that are perfectly captured. The inner workings of the heart are described in poetic terms and kept under wraps. Some may find this aspect of the film tedious. Janet Patterson's production and costume design is faultless; the detail is extraordinary. Like the advent of the central relationship, Campion holds the reigns tightly, imbuing a feeling of claustrophobia as the pace remains as unhurried as the verse Keats writes. This is the epitome of a poetic love story, although if I had been made to care more for the characters, I would have felt far more inspired by the film.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The story of the great romance of a young and brilliant (but unrecognised in his time) romantic poet who dies at age 25 is, well, highly romantic. Jane Campion has bucked today's cinematic trends of violence, ugly realism and graphic sex for a story that literally takes us back to a time of greater sensitivities and higher aspirations - at least for the middle and upper classes of Britain. Why else would she have the poetry of John Keats inserted at every opportunity, read by recited either by Keats (Ben Whishaw) or his virginal young love, Fanny Brawn (Abbie Cornish).
But the film is more about the impact of love on both their lives than about the impact of his poetry, which wasn't widely recognised until after his death. Life's a bitch. The relationship is complicated by the various forces that ruled many lives: money or lack of it. In early 19th century England (and elsewhere) the average young woman's future financial well being and security was decided entirely by who she married. Social mores were strict and any hint of scandal ruined a young lady. For poets, there were no safety nets, and John Keats was broke. These factors, coupled with the consumptive illness that eventually killed Keats, impose dramatic frames around the young lovers.
And these are the vehicles on which the screenplay rides, superbly photographed and designed, beautifully, powerfully acted by a fabulous cast. Paul Schneider is sensational as Keats' friend, Charles Brown and Abbie Cornish is superb, as is Kerry Fox as her mother; everyone is. Yet . . . the poet's eventual fame notwithstanding, we are restless and unsatisfied by the mechanics of the story, with such a narrow focus, so few layers, so restricted a scale. Cinema is the big screen and demands bigger elements, more dynamics. Sure, their romance was the centre of their universe - but it isn't the centre of ours, and the film doesn't manage to make it so.
Email this article
BRIGHT STAR (PG)
CAST: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Paul Schneider, Thomas Sangster, Samuel Barnett, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Edie Martin, Olly Alexander
PRODUCER: Jan Chapman, Caroline Hewitt
DIRECTOR: Jane Campion
SCRIPT: Jane Campion
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Greig Fraser
EDITOR: Alexandre de Franceschi
MUSIC: Mark Bradshaw
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 2009