Bright Star Review
This review contains plot spoilers, but nothing that isn't on the historical record.
London, 1818. Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) lives with her family in a Hampstead house. Next door lives a young man called John Keats (Ben Whishaw). At first they do not get on, but when Keats's brother falls seriously ill, Fanny's efforts to help spark an attachment between her and John that becomes a profound love affair.
There's an undeniable glamour about genius that burns brightly but not long. This romance lasted three years, to be cut short by Keats's death from consumption, aged just twenty-five. He is now regarded as one of the great poets of the Romantic era.
Bright Star is Jane Campion’s first film in four years, after In the Cut which was widely felt to be a disappointment. Written by Campion, the film makes use of Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats, and Motion is credited as a consultant. This is Fanny Brawne’s story, and there are only two or three scenes where she is not present. Fanny is less an unruly force of nature than other Campion protagonists, but it’s her emotional life that takes centre stage. Australian Abbie Cornish, after Somersault and Candy (which she was the best thing in), is one of the best younger actresses around – and she’s well matched by Ben Whishaw, whose handsome enough for us to recognise the attraction that Fanny has to him. Peter Schneider is good value as Keats’s friend and fellow poet Robert Thomas, who thinks little of Fanny or women in general: he’s used by Campion as the target for some well-aimed barbs at the expense of masculine self-importance. Campion’s ability to elicit fine performances from children isn’t remarked on enough, and young Edie Martin steals every scene she’s in as Fanny’s younger sister “Toots”. Kerry Fox, star of Campion’s An Angel at My Table, turns up here as Fanny’s mother.
Writing is one of the least cinematic activities imaginable, and Campion takes Keats’s genius as given. Although poetry is certainly read during this film – a compelling late scene has Fanny and Keats reading alternate stanzas of “La belle dame sans merci” – its composition is taken on trust. Given the focus on Fanny, Keats’s death is offscreen, so we’re spared too many dying-artist clichés.
Bright Star has a measured but quietly compelling pace. Greig Fraser’s camerawork is desaturated to pastel hues, and Janet Patterson’s production and costume designs are first-rate. It’s fashionable now, fifteen years after its Palme d’Or, Oscars and box-office success, to knock The Piano (as I say in my review of three years ago , though I’m not about to. Bright Star is Campion’s best film since. Stay for the end credits and you can listen to Whishaw reading “Ode to a Nightingale”.