Bright Star's Tone Poem 

Jane Campion films John Keats' great love affair

Tuesday, Sep 15 2009

Set in the bucolic suburbs of early–19th century London, as fresh and dewy as a newly mowed lawn, Jane Campion’s Bright Star recounts the love affair between a tubercular young poet and the fashionable teenager next door. It’s more conventionally romantic than wildly Romantic — but no less touching for that.

Fanny Brawne (Australian actress Abbie Cornish) is a self-assured, imperious girl who makes her entrance in a dress of her own design, accessorized with a bright-red, yellow-plumed stovepipe hat. Lippy as well as eye-catching, she immediately gets sassy with the self-important scribblers, John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), who rent the house across the way. Brown, an irascible, hairy Scot in hideous checked trousers, will be her rival for the attentions of Keats, who, as Fanny discovers, is not only good-looking and sensitive but also the greatest unknown writer in England.

Still, it initially seems as if Bright Star might be about a girl genius. Fanny is, as she informs the poets, a creative personality in her own right and more successful than they are. (Did she really invent the pleated skirt, the triple-petal mushroom collar, DIY fashion?) Her outfits are invariably conceptual works of art, while the unimaginative writers always wear the same dreary thing — the girl’s interest in Keats is signaled when she opines that he would look well in blue velvet.

click to enlarge A thing of beauty is a joy forever
  • A thing of beauty is a joy forever

Related Stories

As played by Whishaw (Keith Richards in a 2005 Rolling Stones biopic and the most poetical of Dylan’s avatars in I’m Not There), Keats is clearly a proto–rock star — driven yet lovable and always attuned to himself. Mr. Keats and Miss Brawne make a fabulous couple: They are a pleasure to watch and, for the most part, listen to. Her emphatically smooth brow and his artfully tousled hair seem designed to counterpoint the turbulence beneath their restraint. This emotional turmoil is evident in Keats’ famously jealous love letters but, Fanny’s competition with Brown aside, it is mainly manifested here in material problems. Keats’ lack of professional prospects and poor health ensure that these superadolescent lovers can never marry and thus consummate their love.

Keats argued against an art founded on certainty. However, Bright Star has little interest in mystery — or even ambivalence. Keats’ involvement with Fanny churned up all manner of demons, including the witchy femmes fatale of “Lamia” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” But when, late in the movie, Campion has the couple quote the latter to each other in precise call-and-response, rather than in a fevered outburst of erotic obsession, it becomes a decorous meditation on mortality.

Campion’s self-contained Fanny is hardly the manic minx that Keats described in a letter to his brother: “Her shape is very graceful and so are her movements. ... She is not 17 — but she is ignorant — monstrous in her behavior flying out in all directions.” The poet deemed the disturbing Miss Brawne “beautiful and elegant” yet “silly, fashionable and strange.” That could describe some of Campion’s earlier films — Sweetie, Holy Smoke!, even her perversely skewed Henry James adaptation, Portrait of a Lady — but not Bright Star. There’s no weirdness here, despite the jarringly humid sensuality of the scene in which a lovesick Fanny transforms her bedroom into a butterfly terrarium. Bright Star is a movie of few discords, least of all in Mark Bradshaw’s faux-Baroque score. The England of 1818 seems like a Fragonard garden, the pastoral height of civilization. Conversation is witty; summer seems eternal. Zephyrs cool the heat, and classical compositions are animated by the cute little girl (adorably named Toots) who dances attendance on the lovers. Their passion is both impossibly mad and hopelessly bourgeois — and as artfully turned-out as one of Fanny’s outfits.

Bright Star, which might have been adapted from the Jane Austen novel that Emily Brontë never wrote, creates its own hermetic world. The requisite end titles suggest that Fanny consecrated her life to Keats’ memory; in fact, she married and had three children who eventually became rich on the sale of the letters she sensibly saved. Shadowed by the knowledge of love’s evanescence, this is a movie of undeniable pathos. But that does not make it sublime.

BRIGHT STAR | Written and directed by JANE CAMPION | Produced by JAN CHAPMAN and CAROLINE HEWITT | Apparition | ArcLight Hollywood, The Grove, The Landmark, Monica 4-Plex, ArcLight Sherman Oaks

Reach the writer at jhoberman@villagevoice.com

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Thu 10
  2. Fri 11
  3. Sat 12
  4. Sun 13
  5. Mon 14
  6. Tue 15
  7. Wed 16

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Around The Web


  • 10 Movies You Should See This Summer
    The phrase "summer movies" will never not mean broad, action-driven crowd-pleasers to me: I counted the days until Batman (June 23, 1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (July 3, 1991), and Jurassic Park (June 11, 1993) were released. For every Dark Knight there are 10 Prometheuses — and that's just among the films that are actually trying to be good — but the hype and anticipation of summer movies remains a fun spectator sport. (More fun than sports, anyway.) Here, 10 from Memorial Day weekend and after for which I have, as the song says, high hopes. By Chris Klimek
  • Doc Docs: 8 Powerful Medical Documentaries
    Code Black is the latest in a string of powerful documentaries examining the domestic health care system's flaws and profiling its physicians, caretakers and patients. In this film -- which will be released in select theaters on June 20 -- the cameras are pointed at the nation's busiest emergency room, that of L.A. County Hospital. Here are seven moving medical docs. Click on the film name to read the full review.

    See also:
    35 Music Documentaries Worth Seeing

    15 Documentaries That Help You Understand the World Right Now
  • Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel in Lego
    A Lego replica of The Grand Budapest Hotel was unveiled this past Saturday, June 14, by builder Ryan Ziegelbauer and star of the film Tony Revolori at The Grove in L.A. Ziegelbaur and his team built the 7-foot, 150-pound structure from over 50,000 Lego bricks. The celebration was held in honor of the Blu-Ray and DVD release of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel on June 17th by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. All photos by Mary Bove.

Movie Trailers

View all movie trailers >>

Now Trending