Not a great deal happens in ‘Bright Star’, Jane Campion’s breezy and beautiful film about the nineteenth-century British poet John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw). The New Zealand director’s film is light in the most attractive and dreamy of ways: it floats on its own, intimately explored love story and refuses to be weighed down by either period fixtures and fittings or the later reputation of Keats, whose final years and stalling romance with his neighbour Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) Campion handles with a smartness and sensitivity that feel teasingly throwaway.
That’s not to say there’s anything slapdash about Campion’s story of how Keats moved in next door to the fatherless Brawne family and fell in love with slightly younger Fanny, tentatively courting her and writing her wonderfully honest letters but fatally kept at a distance by poverty and illness. In fact, for this critic, it’s the exquisite detail of the whole affair, coupled with the aerating winds of modernity that blow gently through the film, rather than the emotional pull of the doomed love affair at its heart, that are the film’s real success. (Others, I must say, differ on this point, judging by the sobs and sniffles to my left and right at the London Film Festival screening of the film.)
A combination of unstuffy dialogue, wise casting, unselfconscious performances and sensuous but never pretty photography makes Campion’s version of the nineteenth century feel current but not anachronistic.
Campion came to Keats’s story, which she shot in Britain last year, after a four-year sabbatical from filmmaking – and it shows, especially following the dark, oppressive atmosphere of ‘In the Cut’, one of her least successful films. Her telling of this biographical tale, inspired by Andrew Motion’s biography, feels as if it’s told by someone with much knowledge but little weight on their shoulders. It’s a feeling one gets from the performances too, especially from Cornish and Whishaw, who both, at times, threaten to float off on a cloud of their characters’ distraction. It’s down to the side players, especially an earthy Kerry Fox as Fanny’s mother and a boisterous Paul Schneider as Keats’s friend and protector Charles Brown, to give the film some vim away from the fog of love. Whishaw, with his troubled air and vulnerable features, is perhaps better as a Romantic lead than a romantic one, and if the film has one crucial failing, it’s that there’s a crucial spark missing between Whishaw and Cornish.
Campion treats Keats’s talent as a given and not a cue for creaky explorations of inspiration and artistic otherness. She weaves his poetry into the drama, calling for it to be spoken naturally and not at all awkwardly by her characters. It’s not easy to follow verse this way, but it certainly inspires the viewer to head straight from the cinema to the bookshop.
Click here to read a interview with director Campion