Review by Willard Manus
Jane Campion has always been a gifted and gutsy director, going back to her first feature, Sweetie and her followup prize- winners, An Angel At My Table and The Piano. Now, after a four-year break from movie-making, Campion is back with BRIGHT STAR, an historical drama about the 1819-20 love affair between the 23-year-old English poet, John Keats, and his next-door neighbor, the 18-year-old Fanny Brawne.
Keats is without doubt one of the great Romantic poets of all time, so it's inevitable that Campion would make a lushly romantic film about him. All the elements are there: a doomed Romeo and Juliet relationship; Jane Austen-like settings (the Hyde House near Luton stood in for the script's Hampstead cottages); oodles of Regency costumes and furniture. Campion melds these elements into a skilful re-creation of the England of two hundred years ago.
BRIGHT STAR looks and feels good. Campion also coaxes fine performances out of her lead actors: Abbie Cornish (Fanny), Ben Whishaw (Keats), Paul Schneider (Rob, Keats' best friend). They are believable in their roles, as are Kerry Fox, Thomas Brodie Sangster and Edie Martin in supporting stints.
Campion's DOP, 32-year-old Greig Fraser, was a smart choice as well, thanks to the expert way he has lit and shot the film. An intimate family drama, BRIGHT STAR, has a burnished and tender atmosphere that is enhanced by Mark Bradshaw's evocative score. Bradshaw is only 25 and was picked by Campion because, as she said, "If you're making a film about a genius who died at 25, you've got to take a risk with young people."
Campion was desperate not to make a traditional biopic, one that resembled tightly-corseted UK fare. In that she has been only partially successful. BRIGHT STAR works well when it focuses on
the love affair between Keats and Fanny. Although they rarely had many private moments (young women being chaperoned in those days), they were able to exchange a few kisses and caresses--and a lot of poetry.
Fanny, we learn early on, was unimpressed by literature in general, prefering to spend her time designing and making clothes (she wears enough costumes in BRIGHT STAR to fill a small warehouse). Keats works on her by reciting his latest stanzas; he's not only teaching her, of course, but trying to win her heart. As a result, the girl he first thought of as a stylish minx (she's got a sharp and caustic tongue) becomes a passionate lover of poetry--and of Keats himself.
Unfortunately, we don't learn much else about Fanny, other than that she has a mother (Kerry Fox) who wishes she wouldn't hang out with an impoverished poet. How do the Brawnes live? By Fanny's dress-designing? On a private income?
And what of Keats? We're told that he trained as a doctor, but chose the sonnet over the scalpel. We also know from history that he wrote three of his most famous poems-Ode On a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy and Ode To a Nightingale--while living next door to Fanny. But every time we see him in his room, he's there with his buddy Rob Brown, who's also scribbling away at something. Are they collaborating on one of the odes? Working on a screenplay?
Campion doesn't tell us. She paints Brown as a bawdy rascal with a thick Scottish brogue (delivered deftly by the USA-born Schneider), but glosses over his seduction of Fanny's maid. Not only does her sleep with her, he knocks her up--an important story point which goes nowhere.
Campion also resorts to a cinematic cliche having to do with Keats' illness. History tells us that he died of tuberculosis in Italy in 1821, but did Campion really have to tip her hand by having him cough midway through the story? That's a sure sign of impending death in the movies--someone coughing his guts out.
The many puzzling and superficial things about BRIGHT STAR didn't spoil the film for me, but they surely prevent me from recommending it wholeheartedly.