“Bright Star” satisfies a hunger we may not have known we had, a hunger for an exquisitely done, emotional love story that marries heartbreaking passion to formidable filmmaking restraint, all in the service of an unapologetically romantic belief in “the holiness of the heart’s affections.”
The affections in question are those of the poet who wrote those words, John Keats, perhaps the greatest of England’s 19th century Romantics, and Fanny Brawne, literally the girl next door. They met in 1818, when Keats was 23 and Brawne 18, a little more than two years before his dreadful death from tuberculosis. The intensity of their fervent connection brought forth some of Keats’ greatest work, including the poem that gives the piece its title, and motivated filmmaker Jane Campion to create one of the most moving, most transporting love stories in memory.
Campion, who won an Oscar for writing “The Piano,” which she also directed, has not always wanted her filmmaking to be as pulled-back as it is here. But, in part inspired by the French master Robert Bresson’s unhurried and magisterial “A Man Escaped,” she understood that the Keats-Brawne love affair was such an emotional juggernaut that telling it in a restrained way only increased its power.
Essential in this was the superb work of Australia’s Abbie Cornish and Britain’s Ben Whishaw, whom Campion boldly cast as inseparable lovers without their having met each other. Her gamble paid off: Though not widely known in this country, the performers’ naturalness and ability allow them to function as our contemporaries and as residents of the story’s removed time and place. And they so know how to be in love on screen that they make this chaste relationship burn like fire.
Campion was moved to write the “Bright Star” screenplay by reading about the Keats-Brawne relationship in Andrew Motion’s magisterial 1997 biography, and though the film is true to the story’s major events and situations, Campion has felt free, as she needed to, to invent incident and dialogue to imaginatively flesh out the story and make it come alive.
This starts with the film’s opening credits, which run over unexpected close-ups of a needle and cloth. Motion’s biography describes Brawne as “a diligent student of fashion” who loved dressmaking, and so Brawne presents herself on screen, in a series of impeccable outfits, as a smart, confident young woman who is fierce and unapologetic about being “hopelessly addicted” to the latest in clothing styles, up to and including triple-pleated collars.
Brawne makes that statement to the Scotsman Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), one of her family’s neighbors in the village of Hampstead Heath, at the time on the far outskirts of London. Clearly there is bad blood between them: Brawne, angry about cutting remarks he has previously made about her fashionista tendencies, flatly refuses to shake his hand -- and it will only get worse.
Brown is himself a writer and a close friend of Keats, who is currently sharing quarters with him. Brawne is dispatched to bring the poet tea, and though they take notice of each other, neither is hit by a thunderbolt. He calls her “minx,” and though she finds poetry too challenging, she becomes intrigued (as how could she not) by the man who wrote “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
This potential romance makes no one happy, not Brawne’s mother (Kerry Fox, who did “Angel at My Table” with Campion), who worries that the penniless Keats cannot marry without funds, and not Brown, who is frankly jealous of Keats’ increasingly serious interest and will do almost anything to keep the poet away from someone he views as a lightweight who “makes a religion out of flirting.”
Displaying a strong brogue, American actor Schneider is fearless in his portrayal of this puffed-up poetic thug, brazenly capturing the essence of a man whom one Keats authority called “a strange mixture of coarseness, kindness, cold-bloodedness and calculation.”
Opposition or no opposition, nothing, aside from Keats’ increasingly severe illness, can keep these two apart, especially when circumstances have them sharing the same house and, in a classic moment, simultaneously touching the thin bedroom wall that keeps them apart. It’s a tribute to all concerned, especially the letter-perfect actors and the wonderful language Campion has given them, that this film holds us from first to last even though history has told us exactly how it will end.
As she did with “The Piano,” Campion has placed her characters in a 19th century world that feels as tangible and lived in as our own. Working again with her longtime production and costume designer Janet Patterson, Campion demonstrates her gift for making the dailiness of distant lives vivid and convincing.
Despite being Campion’s first film after a four-year break, “Bright Star” is masterfully put-together, made with confidence, intelligence and command. In collaboration with cinematographer Greig Fraser, Campion, who with “The Piano” was only the second woman to be nominated for the best director Oscar, has seen to it that no shot is anything but impeccably, and often inventively, composed. When an unconventional director takes on traditional material in a forthright style, the underlying creative tension invariably makes for exciting cinema.
Because Brawne and the nature of her feelings for the poet have remained contentious to Keatsians over all these years, Campion was clearly determined to make this a balanced relationship and to have Brawne be the equal romantic partner Keats’ poetry and letters insist was the case, and in this as in all else she has succeeded.
As he was leaving on the trip to Italy from which he was never to return, Keats wrote to Brown, “The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond every thing horrible -- the sense of darkness coming over me -- I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing.” It takes this exceptional film to do justice to that stunning an image of romantic devotion and loss.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking
Running time: 1 hour and 59 minutes
Playing: At the Grove, Los Angeles, and at the Landmark, West Los Angeles