bright star posterBright Star is a visually poetic film from Jane Campion, based on the final years of one of the most celebrated Romantic poets, John Keats, and his relationship with Fanny Brawne. Ben Wishaw follows his leading performance in Perfume as the poet and Australian actress Abbie Cornish as Keats’ muse. Based on Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats it is a tour de force of tragic love with a serious and affecting intelligence and Campion wisely chooses to let the poetry come, like leaves to a tree, from the inspiration Keats finds with his muse, Fanny Brawne.

It is a sad film filled with bright, shining moments. Keats is portrayed as a man failing in health and prospects, surrounded by friends who love him though unable to sustain him. Sharing a room with his bullish close friend Brown (Paul Schneider) and a house with the Brawne family Keats’ magisterial poetic voice is raised through his relationship with the eldest daughter of that family, the spiky, fashionable and mellifluous Fanny. Though doomed by the narrow parameters of society the love which blossoms between the two is slow burning at first, yet builds to an all consuming fire by the end.

Love is the pulse of this film, and Campion takes her time with the central relationship, allowing it to feel its way naturally into life and find the two central characters in good time. Keats’ story is not a happy one, constantly on the edge of debt and his talent undiscovered almost completely and yet the audience was held in rapt attention while his words were read on screen. Familiarity did not dull the sonnets and the Odes that came easily into the narrative, thanks to a economic and imaginative script.

The performances were solid, Wishaw gives Keats a subtle charm and does not overplay the moments of inspiration. Abbie Cornish has the harder task of carrying the audience with her as she, and we, fall for this dispirited man, and yet her capability leads us through the infatuation and raptures of love. She is the one, the Bright Star, who carries this film.

The direction is understated and suitable poetic from a visual standpoint and you are able to see Campion stepping back from the scene and allowing it to play out. The delicate touch allows us to immerse ourselves into this world and yet there are moments, such as the moment when Keats, euphoric, climbs to the top of a tree and lies on its topmost branches among its blooming flowers under a flawless sky. Likewise the butterfly garden Fanny creates in his room is realised expertly and with a genuine emotional delicacy. The shadows are equally powerful, and Campion’s choice of understated music which echoes mournfully through the sedate scenes of society constriction is a masterful play.

The interiors are dark wood, solid and oppressive; the house they share is made to contain. It deadens the senses, so important as Keats has it, “Poetry can only be understood by the senses,” and so it is here with Wentworth Place. The location chosen by Campion reinforces the repression of the society that fuels Keats’ inferiorities, denying him the pathway of his affections. The doors are heavy and their opening and closing echo throughout the house, the floorboards creak and shouts of argument and whispers of devotion have nowhere to go and are caught. That Keats and Fanny are divided in their beds by only a thin wall is a perfect illustration of the importance of space as a metaphor for their existence together.

In an exquisite moment, when love is declared and Fanny reals the sudden rush of its power she is shown lying back, almost thrown back on her bed as the bedroom curtains billow inwards, letting in the summer wind to which she happily succumbs.

At times the film feels airless and detached from the details of the love which drives it. We only see glints of the complete love of the written word which cast such a spell over Fanny initially and which sustains Keats in his later, frail days. While letters are poured over and small notes of two simple words held to the breast there is little of the ecstasy felt in the creation of these. Only once, when the words of Ode To a Nightingale come to the poet after listening to the song of the bird as it made its nest outside his room, Keats takes his place under a plum tree and inhales deeply and the words are spoken over the scene, then written on scraps of paper. This for me was the joy of the film. The inspiration bringing forth the sublime poetry which is his legacy. He, like the nightingale, lives on through his song.

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There is much darkness in this Bright Star, and as Keats and Fanny fall in love within the social shades of the time, and touch hands in the fleeting moments of privacy they find, it is society, money and illness which conspire to deny them the happiness they fight for. Campion keeps the story close to its heart and Fanny and Keats are the beginning and the end of this film and perhaps it was a combinable decision not to sex up the story (indeed the consequences of sexual liberties are shown all too clearly in Brown screaming that, after having an illegitimate child with a maid and failing Keats in his moment of dire need), however there is such passion in Keats’ poetry that the romance on screen in kept in stolen kisses and longing, agonising looks.

The film is a sensual triumph and though the pace often slows the performances are engaging enough to allow the poetry and intelligence of the film to shine through the tragedy.

Bright Star is released in UK cinemas on the 6th of November 2009.