Bright Star

Bright Star

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

As literary romances go, there’s no other more suited to the big-screen treatment; a poetic genius falls in love with the woman who is to inspire some of his finest work, but social circumstances dictate they can never be together. Then he contracts a fatal disease...

I’m amazed it’s never been done before, but was wary that it might prompt an overly restrained and delicate ‘heritage cinema’ product. Happily, Jane Campion’s first full-length feature since In The Cut is a much more rich and vibrant offering.

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There are plenty of bonnets and country houses if you like that sort of thing, but also a hard-headed appreciation of the binding social conventions of the time, which ensured the course of true love could only run smooth if it had enough money, and the fact that hardship and suffering were never far away even for those who appeared to be a few rungs from the bottom of the ladder.

This comes as no surprise given that two of Campion’s best films are The Piano and The Portrait Of A Lady, which showed that the phrase ‘costume drama’ doesn’t have to be shorthand for ‘tasteful and accomplished, but a bit dull’. They also rang the changes by putting the female protagonist centre stage and Bright Star continues that tradition.

Sometimes portrayed as a shadowy (and negative) player in the great drama of Keats’ short and not all that happy life, Fanny Brawne (surely the least romantic name ever for a great poet’s muse?) was nevertheless the inspiration for some of his greatest work. She was undoubtedly the love of his life, although the fact the fates conspired to ensure that their dream of a life together remained just that only increased his emotional turmoil. His correspondence to her scandalised Victorian England when it was published and still reads as a remarkable combination of poetic ardour and very sensual desire. It’s hard to believe the object of such affection was a wan nonentity or a shallow socialite.

So instead of the opening montage being of the big-shirted Romantic’s quill gliding over parchment we see a needle, rapid and industrious, engaged in another kind of creativity. The seamstress is Fanny (Abbie Cornish) and we’re introduced to her first; strikingly beautiful but also intelligent, spirited and fashionable, keen to make her own way in the world and enjoy all it has to offer.

In many ways, she’s the opposite of the unworldly, artistic Mr Keats (Ben Wishaw). But she’s also literally the girl next door, as her family rent a house in Hampstead Village owned by Keats’ friend and patron Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider). As they grow to know each other better, and she sees Keats’ devotion to his sick brother, they find they have more in common than at first supposed, and even their differences become a source of attraction.

Campion orchestrates all this beautifully, ensuring that their burgeoning romance seems fresh and genuine. But she’s also fascinated by the flip-side of the coin; the highly-charged animosity between Fanny and Brown. He regards her as an insubstantial flirt who’ll drag his charge off to polite society when he should be spearheading the Romantic movement; she regards him as an oafish boor, projecting his failures as an artist onto an obsessive, overly-protective relationship with a superior talent.

Their icily formal exchanges positively drip acid, and provide a good chunk of the film’s humour, but they also suggest that the two rivals may have insights into each other’s character that are lost on the trusting Keats, smitten by one and indebted to the other.

Added to all this, Keats’ lack of money or any social standing means he can never publicly declare his love for Fanny as it would place her outside of the marriage market. They cannot even be alone together, but must always be accompanied by Fanny’s young brother and sister; naturally they regard this as a total bore, but they too grow to love the gentle, young-at-heart poet.

But the money grows tighter, Keats’ work is met with critical scorn when first published (incredible, but true) and the need to keep writing and keep healthy frequently takes him away from London, and Fanny. Separation makes her realise how much she loves him. But when he contracts TB, it seems that, one way or the other, they must part forever...

At times, all this proceeds at somewhat too stately a pace, though this does help build up the degree of intimacy; one or both of the lovers is in almost every scene and by the end, you do feel you’ve been through the wringer with them. But it’s also a tremendously uplifting story, of a genuine passion that burned all the more strongly for being so constantly thwarted.

The performances are uniformly terrific. Cornish, an Australian actress perhaps best-known as Bess Throckmorton in Elizabeth: The Golden Age brings a feisty sensuality to her role and Whishaw’s quiet intensity is ideally suited to bringing Keats to life. Far from the caricatured sighing drip Romantic, he’s a passionate workaholic and a devoted friend and brother, someone who can’t do anything by halves.

Schneider (more usually seen in American indie fare like Away We Go and Lars And The Real Girl) is an intriguing foil to both of them and Kerry Fox, who made such a stunning debut in Campion’s An Angel At My Table and has since been a reliably classy presence in everything from Shallow Grave to Welcome To Sarajevo, is excellent as Fanny’s widowed mother, struggling to keep her family together and out of poverty, while coming to regard Keats as a surrogate son.

Campion creates a Regency bonnet-full of striking images, once again making the landscape another character. Though mostly shot in Bedford, it creates a vivid sense of Hampstead in the early 19th century; a separate entity from London, though closely linked to it, its landscapes reflecting every season and offering glimpsed of the pastoral idyll the lovers know can never be theirs.

But she doesn’t shy away from showing the cold, damp, dark side of this world. Like Joe Wright’s version of Pride And Prejudice, this isn’t a chocolate box playground, but a society where disease and poverty are constant threats.

That Keats and Fanny manage to find brief happiness in its midst makes for a poignant and rewarding tale. Mark Bradshaw’s music recalls (without slavishly imitating) Michael Nyman’s famous score for The Piano and there are plentiful (though occasionally somewhat shoehorned) quotations from the poems and letters, just to leave you in no doubt that we are dealing with one of the great artists of the English language.

If you’re a fan, it’ll have you grabbing the collected works off the bookshelf again. Even if you aren’t you may well be after seeing this – and you’ll have experienced a bravura telling of one of the great true love stories into the bargain.

Reviewed on: 22 Oct 2009
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The poet John Keats meets the woman who is to become the love of his life.
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If you like this, try:

The Edge Of Love
Pride & Prejudice