In "Bright Star", Campion writes and directs the story of John Keats (Ben Whishaw, "Brideshead Revisited", "Perfume"), the celebrated 19th Century British poet, who wasn't so celebrated when he was alive. Struggling to make any money, he also struggles to create poetry, fulfilling his calling, his ambition, when he meets Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish, "Stop Loss", "Elizabeth – The Golden Age"). They begin a lasting, meaningful relationship that her mother frowns upon. "He has no money and no way to make money". And John's mentor and benefactor, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider, TV's "Parks and Recreation", "Lars and the Real Girl") intensely dislikes Fanny because he fears she is a distraction on his protégé. But Fanny will never lover another and as Keats circumstances take him from her side, she becomes emotionally distraught when he fails to write. One day, Keats is trapped in a rainstorm as he walks back to his house, which is next door to Fanny and her mother. He becomes sick and spends the rest of his days trying to improve or just maintain his health. A collective decision is soon reached and they decide John must travel to Italy, a warmer climate sure to improve his health. Fanny decides to travel to Italy with John, and to marry him, but he eventually makes the journey with a male companion as his aide.
"Bright Star" is a very good film, but I have to admit, I didn't fall completely in love with it and I think a lot of this has to do with the theater. We went to a theater that was close to our house, the Laemelle Monica, instead of the newer, more deluxe Landmark Theater we prefer. On the one hand, I want to give the local theater that could clearly use the business our movie ticket dollars. But the theater is old, shabby and most importantly uncomfortable. Thankfully, the film was showing in their largest theater and it was not even half full. On a Friday night, the night the film opened. Which is a plus for the viewer, but just points to even more reasons to go to this theater. The theater is big, but it doesn't have new seats or moveable armrests and about halfway through the film, I began to get very uncomfortable. About thirty more minutes in, I had to readjust my sitting position and the movement caused a lot of pain in my rear end. Obviously, you don't want to concentrate on the amount of pain in your rear end during a romantic period piece. You want to be swept away by the film. This was difficult because the uncomfortable theater kept drawing me back to the present.
That said, I think Jane Campion brings a unique sensibility to her films, a point of view that is either lacking or ignored in other similar films. For instance, in "Bright Star", we watch as Fanny takes great pride in sewing and making her own clothes. She stitches things by hand and adds embellishments, which her family seems to think, are grand and quite fashion forward. This earns her the scorn of Mr. Brown, but they have other issues to deal with and this seems to be merely another method for the two to verbally spar with one another. In most other period pieces, the women make their own clothes because they are poor and certainly don't go about trumpeting the fact that they are wearing handmade outfits. The Brawnes (mother, Fanny and two younger siblings) aren't poor, they are simply living comfortably. So mother thinks Fanny is a desirable catch and wants, desires for her to fall in love with a soldier or someone in politics, someone who can earn a living and provide for her. She certainly doesn't want Fanny to continue her relationship with a penniless poet like John Keats. Worse, a poet who is actually living in debt.
This is another thing I liked about "Bright Star". In so many of these period pieces, the poet or artists or romantics income is considered in private, whispered about by the potential mate's parents. In "Bright", Fanny's mother discusses Keats's income and worth openly and in front of him. This is a big decision for her daughter and it can't be taken lightly. If she marries Keats, how will he be able to support her and provide a home for her to live in when he can't do such a thing for himself. It is a little refreshing to see the situation handled in such an open and honest manner. Clearly, the times were different and people were very concerned about appearances and status. But Keats really doesn't have either as he openly comments about his situation and his status as Brown's aide de camp.
Campion's different sensibility allows her characters to seem more real and believable. They act and behave in a more realistic way. When Fanny decides to visit Keats, her younger brother and sister accompany her and act as chaperone as the two older lovers walks along a forested path, scarcely touching hands. At one point, Fanny's sister proclaims that something they are about to do isn't proper jolting Fanny back into reality.
Abbie Cornish plays Fanny Brawne. And she is very good in the role. This is her first big starring role and she shows she has the ability to keep up with Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley, giving each a run for their money. Cornish plays the young woman as a very strong, very emotional young lady. Her mother is raising the family, which makes Fanny second in charge, forcing the young woman to take on more responsibility than a woman of more means might have. And when she starts to attract the eye of the young poet, and vice verse, she will and does fight for him. She listens to her mother, she has too much respect to do otherwise, but she is in love and a little thing like money won't get in the way.
The fact that Fanny's mother relies on her daughter for help has matured the young woman beyond her years. So it seems refreshing to watch her lose herself in the romantic nature of the relationship with the young poet. These two halves of her life seem to pull at her throughout the story, diverting her attention from one moment to the next.
Ben Whishaw, last seen in the recent big screen adaptation of "Brideshead Revisited" is also very good as the young poet. At times, we get glimpses into various aspects of his persona. He is very attentive when one of Fanny's siblings makes an offhand comment heard from a bookseller about the sales of the poet's new book. This reveals to us the poet has more than just an artistic desire to be heard; he realizes he must generate income, through book sales, to allow him to continue to write. If his book doesn't sell, the bookseller will be more reluctant to sell the next, making it harder to maintain the small cash flow he currently has. This moment gives us insight into his character that we don't normally see in a film about a romantic poet. While it makes him more interesting, it also makes him seem more human and therefore more vulnerable.
Obviously, there is little, if anything that will keep these two apart. Nothing Fanny's mother says, any of the sarcastic comments from John Brown, will cause a break in her heart and cause Fanny to look the other way, to look at another man for romance.
John Brown is called away, at one point, and Keats goes with him. During this period, Fanny waits for her lover's letters and is happy to get each one, reveling in every word. When the letters don't come for a while, Fanny becomes distraught and morose. When it is revealed why the letters stopped, we realize this romance will have a tragic ending.
"Bright Star" is a beautiful film, with two promising new leads. In the hands of writer and director Jane Campion, the story is more honest, more believable and more moving than most.