Pure poetry: a subdued period drama
by Jason Blair
BRIGHT STAR: Written and directed by Jane Campion. Cinematography, Greig Fraser. Music, Mark Bradshaw. Starring Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider and Kerry Fox. Apparition, 2009. PG. 119 minutes.
With Bright Star, writer and director Jane Campion achieves two things I thought impossible by now: She makes poetry interesting while creating a period drama that isn’t fusty. Campion, best known for directing The Piano, has spent years making overly serious films furrowed everywhere with signs of effort, but the casual grace she’s occasionally exhibited could not have returned at a better time. Bright Star is the story of the two-year love affair between John Keats, arguably the greatest of the Romantic poets, and Fanny Brawne, an inspired seamstress who was literally the girl next door. Approaching this material with anything but calm restraint might produce an outsized or self-important result — genius poet stirs beautiful and self-assured neighbor girl, who in turn inspires some of his greatest work — but Campion aims for understated and plain. Too understated, some will argue, but the result is, to my eyes, a stirring and lasting work of art.
Bright Star is set outside London in 1818, the year that Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny (Abbie Cornish) first take notice of each other. They are neighbors, but only dimly aware of it. Brawne is committed to earning an income by her trade. Keats, meanwhile, spends his days in a stuffy room courting inspiration along with his poet pal Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), their debt increasing by the day, their fame a more and more distant possibility. When Keats’ beloved brother contracts tuberculosis, Brawne insists on paying him a visit alongside John. Accompanying the oddly matched couple are Brawne’s siblings Samuel (Thomas Sangster) and Toots (Edie Martin, in a debut as impressive as Anna Paquin in The Piano or Abigail Breslin in Signs). Much of what lies ahead is established in these early scenes, in particular the modesty and sincerity of the young lovers, or the way Campion builds their story from the tiniest of human moments, like the way Keats cringes when he forgets a line of his poetry. The film never forgets the awkwardness of love, something Toots is always on hand to point out: At a bookstore, after asking if the proprietor carries Keats, Toots blurts: “My sister has met the author, and she wants to read it for herself to see if he’s an idiot.”
Complicating matters is Brown, who accuses Brawne of making “a religion out of flirting.” Brown is an inferior poet and knows it; unable to exceed Keats, he endeavors to protect him from what he perceives to be the threatening influence of Brawne. As Keats, Whishaw (I’m Not There) is a formidable presence, if a physically weakened and tubercular one, while Cornish (Stop-Loss) reveals a calmness and depth not displayed before in her handful of Hollywood roles. Brown’s Schneider is slippery and wicked. (After can’t-miss turns in Lars and the Real Girl and The Assassination of Jesse James, Schneider should be considered among our best emerging actors.) Again and again, cinematographer Greig Fraser finds the exquisite in the everyday: the sweeping of a few dead butterflies from the floor, a field of daffodils out of focus, a hat disappearing as its owner descends a hill. Bright Star is, by a wide margin, the best-looking film of the year, with a soundtrack as intoxicating as any in recent memory.
In 1993, Campion was only the second woman ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. My money is on Campion being the first woman nominated twice. Bright Star is so restrained that it slows to a crawl in places, in particular the summer the two lovers spend apart. A friend leaving the theater said simply, “It didn’t speak to me.” But it does speak. It’s just a softer voice than we might expect.
Bright Star is now playing at the Bijou.