Bright Star

In 1818, the poet John Keats, here played by Ben Whishaw, moves in with his best friend Charles Armitage Brown, played by Paul Schneider. The two occupy a house in Hampstead London near the residence of the Brawnes, a widowed mother and her three children. The oldest, Fanny, played by Abbie Cornish, could be a heroine straight out of a Jane Austen novel. She’s opinionated, outspoken and sure that she knows what’s best for everyone. Keats, on the other hand is our archetype for the romantic era poet, dressed in dark colors, obsessed with death and indigent, dependent on Brown and others who recognize his talent, even though most of the world doesn’t.

In the romantic tradition, these two bicker at first. He thinks she is shallow, since she is always talking about fashion and knows nothing about poetry or literature. She thinks he is condescending and cold. When she sees him with his dying brother, however, she begins to come around and eventually they fall in love. The problem is that he has no income and can’t support her. Fanny’s mother is against any union for that reason. Brown opposes it because he fears that Fanny will distract John from his poetry. The couple persists and carry on a chaste, formal and distant love affair for three years. She serves as his muse.

John Keats died in 1821 in Rome of tuberculosis. He was 25.

All the performances in this film are excellent, but the leads stand out. Abbie Cornish has done a few of these costume dramas and excels at them, but I have to believe that this is her best work yet. She portrays Fanny as a solid sensible middle class oldest child, willing to take on responsibility. But there is also a playful romantic streak in her that causes her to fall for a poet with no prospects. Cornish captures that. And at the climax where she hears of Keats’ death, she is devastating.

Likewise Ben Whishaw doesn’t play Keats as gloomily as he might have. He throws a rugby ball around with Fanny’s brother and sister and is considerate and kind enough that eventually, Fanny’s mother agrees to the marriage, although it is on the eve of his departure for Rome and therefore too late. Keats doesn’t force his genius and sensitivity on others, although you can see it. He is humble and human, although in a very awkward way. Fanny teaches him a lot about the main topic of his verse, namely love.

Jane Campion writes and directs with the steady hand of a costume drama veteran. The film unwinds at a stately pace and is beautifully photographed. She uses Keats’ own words extensively and this sometimes drags the story to a halt but that is a cavil. The worst thing that can be said of Bright Star is that it’s not as good as The Piano, but she may not make a better movie than that.

Bright Star is a well made and touching romantic film.


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September 2009
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