Campion’s spellbinding ‘Bright Star” a thing of beauty
It begins like a Jane Austen comedy of manners, with genteel country folk in top hats and high-waisted frocks visiting each other’s parlors, trading repartee. But filmmaker Jane Campion has something far more rapturous, mysterious, and absorbing in mind for her new film, Bright Star. Working from a real-life romance in the life of Romantic-era English poet John Keats, Campion creates an achingly lovely ode to youthful passion, and the wellspring of art.
In 1818, in the countryside of Hampstead, the impoverished young Keats (Ben Whishaw) has taken lodgings in the house of his friend and brother poet, rough-hewn Scotsman Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) for the summer. Their neighbors across the way are the widowed Mrs. Brawne and her three children. The eldest, 16-year-old Fanny (the resolute and remarkable Abbie Cornish) is an accomplished seamstress who designs and hand-sews all her own clothes.
Brown ferociously guards Keats and their sacred work from the distractions of their neighbors. The Scotsman especially enjoys baiting “the very well-stitched little Miss Brawne,” who dismisses him with cutting disdain. But Fanny is drawn to gentlemanly young John; she not only brings him little hand-made gifts for his consumptive brother back in London, she sends her younger siblings into the village to buy a copy of John’s book “Endymion” (the only copy the bookseller has sold). When she asks John for lessons to help her “work out” the mysteries of poesy, a sympathetic affection begins to brew between them.
John has neither living nor income to support a wife, and no other intimate attachment is possible. (At 22, he’s not even sure how he feels about women, his sister being the only member of that species with whom he’s ever felt comfortable), Social conventions are so strictly enforced, Fanny can’t set foot outside the house without her brother or sister dispatched to accompany her. And their budding relationship is complicated at every turn by the volatile ambiguity of Brown’s feelings for both John and Fanny.
Yet they’re swept up in all the rage, despair, joy and tragedy that young love confers. The depth of their feeling unfolds in Campion’s details: in the way Fanny opens her window to let a sunlit, gently billowing breeze caress her after she and John have stolen their first kiss. In the tactile thrill of a hand-scrawled letter delivered by post, or a note slipped under a door. In the fragile, trembling beauty of the roomful of live butterflies Fanny collects while John is away, writing her from the seaside where he’s gone for his own failing health (their desiccated corpses soon swept up into the dustpan, along with her hopes, when John’s letters cease).
Campion gets it that in John and Fanny’s era, people’s emotions weren’t pre-digested for them via movies or TV soap operas. In the unchartered territory of the heart without a compass, their first experience of love is raw and unfiltered; stubborn and all-consuming. The only way for John to examine and cope with his feelings is through his increasing output of mature poetry—including the poem “Bright Star,” which scholars believe was written for Fanny.
Keats tells Fanny a poem must be understood through all the senses, and Campion’s breathtaking images have a poetry all their own. She revels in a sea of spring bluebells, or cottages clustered together like clumps of moss on a hillside, connected by long strings of rustling white laundry, or the intimate serenity of Fanny, patiently plying her stitches at her sunlit window.
Whishaw’s Keats is a half-fey creature burning through his short life ingesting experience from which to create art. American actor Schneider is excellent as Brown, whose disruptive belligerence masks feelings too complex to confront within himself. Kerry Fox (star of Campion’s fine early film, An Angel At My Table) brings a wise, weary sympathy to the role of Mrs. Brawne, and little Edie Martin is a frisky delight as Fanny’s impish little sister.
Seductive to watch, paced and rigorous in its accumulation of feeling, this is vivid storytelling by a filmmaker of astonishing craft and subtlety.
BRIGHT STAR ★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch movie trailer >
With Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, and Paul Schneider. Written and directed by Jane Campion. An Apparition release. Rated PG. 119 minutes.