Bright Star (United Kingdom/Australia/France, 2009)September 17, 2009
It's amazing how many 19th century authors have received motion picture treatments of their lives - in fact, it may be fair to say that more modern-day movie-goers are seeing their screen stories than are reading their printed works. Bright Star concerns the latter years of poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), who died in 1821 and the age of 25. Toward the end of his life, Keats was involved in a turbulent love affair with his next-door neighbor, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), and that forms the background of a romance that would have delighted Keats' contemporary, Jane Austen (who died only a few years before Keats). Indeed, whether intentionally or not, there are times when writer/director Jane Campion's story seems inspired by Austen, at least in the way that Fanny is presented.
Bright Star stays true to the facts, at least insofar as they are known. Obviously, artistic liberties are taken, but the basic story matches what history has left us in the form of Keats' letters and poems and Fanny's correspondence with Keats' sister. (Fanny's letters to Keats were destroyed upon his death, as he requested.) There's enough material here for a solid, heartfelt period love story - it may not make viewers swoon the way a good Jane Austen adaptation might, but it's well enough made to deliver an emotional impact.
The film, which is primarily told from Fanny's viewpoint (whenever the lovers are separated, it stays with Fanny), begins where one would expect all good love stories to begin: with the meeting. Initially, Fanny and Keats are not well-matched. She is obsessed by fashion; he is a writer who agonizes over negative critical reaction to his published works. They spar for a while, egged on by Keats' friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), who loves nothing so much as antagonizing Fanny, whom he views as superficial. Eventually, Fanny and Keats are drawn to each other, much to the distress of Brown. Although Fanny's mother (Kerry Fox) is liberal when it comes to her daughter's happiness, the potential of a marriage between Fanny and Keats does not sit well with her because he is in debt and does not have good prospects. However, when he develops tuberculosis (the disease that killed his mother and brother), the likelihood of a future union looks bleak.
Beginning to end, this is Abbie Cornish's motion picture, and the strength of her performance goes a long way toward selling the romance. Those who saw Cornish opposite Heath Ledger in Candy will not be surprised by the depth of her talent, but this is something of an eye-opening opportunity. She has also undergone a "make-down" to play the part: her blonde hair has been dyed dark and she either put on weight or is wearing padded clothing (difficult to tell given the density of period-appropriate female wardrobe). Her co-star, Ben Whishaw, who had the lead in Tom Tykwer's Perfume, does an adequate job representing Keats as a poet tormented by love, poverty, and physical illness, but Whishaw rarely emerges from Cornish's shadow. Of the supporting performers, only Schneider leaves an impression. His impassioned portrayal of the resentful, libertarian Brown makes the character an able foil for Fanny. One suspects that had he played Keats, the sparks would have flown far more freely than they do with Whishaw in that role.
Bright Star has a limited target audience: those who enjoy historically-based romances. The film isn't going to win many converts from outside that circle but, for what it is, it's a better-than-average effort. Campion, who has handled racy material in the past (The Piano, for example), keeps things prim-and-proper for this story, which is buttoned-down enough to receive a PG rating from the MPAA. Bright Star contains eroticism, but it's of the subtle kind: lips brushing in stolen kisses, hands touching fleetingly. There are also samplings of Keats, although possibly not enough to satisfy a true devotee. Bright Star is a nice ode to the poet, the love of his life, and the period in which he lived.
Bright Star (United Kingdom/Australia/France, 2009)
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox
Screenplay: Jane Campion
Cinematography: Greig Fraser
Music: Mark Bradshaw
U.S. Distributor: Apparition