I’m plagued by many wishes. I wish, for example, that Jane Campion’s Bright Star didn’t begin to lag about three-quarters of the way through. I wish that the wonderful Australian actress Abbie Cornish, who plays the lover of poet John Keats in the same movie, hadn’t overshadowed Ben Whishaw, the English actor who portrays the famed romantic poet. I also wish that Campion, a director whose early career promised a startlingly distinctive approach to cinema, had found a subject that we’d typically expect to find on Masterpiece Theater.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
But the world is not made of wishes, and we have Bright Star, Campion’s beautifully crafted view of life for artists in the early 19th century. Keats, as we all know from various required English courses, believed ”a thing of beauty is joy forever.” He died of tuberculosis at the unforgivably tender age of 25.
As befits an artist who died young, Keats’ love for Cornish’s Fanny Brawne was both ardent and tragic. Keats was too poor to marry and too full of moral rectitude to sleep with Fanny. He was intoxicated by her, but sometimes found reasons to stay away from her. During these periods, she learned to pine for him. Do people pine for one another anymore or do they simply go on Facebook? I’m just asking.
Perhaps Whishaw’s relatively unimpressive performance stems from the way Campion focuses her film. She spends more time following Fanny than trudging after the poet. As Campion imagines her, Fanny seems fully worthy of a movie. She’s a self-assured young woman with an eye for fashion. By definition, fashion is fleeting and certainly not intended as “a joy forever.” It lasts a season.
Initially dismissive of Keats’ arty ways, Fanny eventually falls for him. Cornish gives full vent to Fanny’s personality: Fanny’s free-flowing spirit tends to be burdened by the weight of love. She loses some of the spring in her step. For her part, Fanny would have tossed aside convention and hopped into Keats’ bed. He would have none of it. As he moved toward his gloomy death, he refused to compromise Fanny’s reputation.
These days, it’s more than a little daring to make a love story about two people who never have sex. Bright Star is about love that never removes its clothes, and the ache of Cornish’s pent-up passion is something to behold.
Equally interesting is the character of Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), Keats’ friend and occasional roommate. The two shared a house close to the Brawne residence. Brown worried that Keats’ preoccupation with Brawne would sap his talent and drain his creative energy. Brown attempted to put a wall between Brawne and Keats, but Keats refused to yield to his friend’s entreaties. He gently followed his heart.
Somewhere beyond the middle of Campion’s smooth presentation, I began to wonder if the movie hadn’t already said everything that could be said, which means that it had to turn itself into ritualized drama, the slow movement toward Keat’s physical decline and death.
Given the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences foolishly committed to nominating 10 movies for best picture in 2010, Bright Star is sure to wind up on the list. For me, Bright Star is three-quarters of the way toward being a fine movie — one that evinces bracing clarity — and a few stanzas short of greatness. Pity.