The brilliance of Jane Campion is her ability to not only tell a great story but to also capture the mood of a piece. Told with intoxicating lyricism, Bright Star is glorious in its simplicity and flow, which can only be described as poetic.
Taking her starting point from Andrew Motion’s biography of John Keats, Campion has developed a love story told from the perspective of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish, Somersault, Stop-loss). The objects of desire in this film are both Keats the man, and his poetry. Dying at the tender age of 25 yrs, John Keats (Ben Whishaw Nathan Barley, Perfume) never achieved in his lifetime the acclaim his work now holds. Bright Star gives us an opportunity to consider what inspired his words. Campion, as both director and writer, has pieced together aspects of his life from his letters and poems.
Fanny Brawne met John Keats in 1818 when they became neighbours in Hampstead, she was 18 and he 23. Though Fanny’s significance in the poet’s life is debated by Keats’ academics, in Bright Star the love story plays out with youthful and feverish passion. There is however restrain to their relationship with the constant chaperoning by Fanny’s younger brother, Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Nanny McPhee, Nowhere Boy) and sister, Toots (Edie Martin). Added to this is the disapproval of Mr Brown (Paul Schneider, All the Real Girls, Away We Go), Keats’ friend and fellow poet. Schneider plays Charles Brown with a sort of quiet threatening, a man who is jealous of Fanny and John’s intimacy and possessive of Keats’ creativity.
Cinematically director of photography, Greig Fraser, has shot the film embracing and emphasising the beauty of the English countryside. With the seasons mirroring Fanny and John’s relationship, the film is certainly a visual work that the nature-loving Romantic Poets would have been delighted with.
The motif of butterflies throughout the film aptly symbolises John Keats, who Ben Whisham plays with a fragility that suits the tormented poetic soul. In contract Abbie Cornish’s Fanny is strong-willed, ever determined in pursuing her relationship with Keats.
There is no doubt that Bright Star is simply not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. With its drawn out storytelling and hierarchical importance placed on emotion over plot, it has not been made in the standard mould of biopics or historical films. But if your memories of the Romantic Poets is of the boring over-analysis of high school English, it is time to give them another chance with Bright Star. The exquisite reading of Keats’ poem Ode to a Nightingale over the end credits by Whishaw is a reminder that poetry is something to be enjoyed, not simply studied.
Bright Star is screening nationally in Australia now
Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Edie Martin