Directed by Jane Campion. Starring Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Edie Martin. (2009, PG, 119 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 25, 2009
Expressions of love can be both immediate and eternal. Their words and body language are functions of the present – thoughts, yearnings, endearments, and supplications that convey afresh to those in love certain feelings that are as quotidian and timeless as the rising of the sun. In the voice of a poet, the words may take on a life of their own, become truly ageless and unbound from their moment in time and space.
In Bright Star, Campion has achieved the difficult feat of conveying both senses of this experience. Her story (directed from her own screenplay) of the love affair between the Romantic poet John Keats (Whishaw) and the literal girl next door, Fanny Brawne (Cornish), is a thing that is both historical and contemporary. Covering the years 1818, when Keats and Brawne first met, to 1821, when the poet died at the age of 25, Bright Star is an evocatively re-created period drama. Replete with the costumes, customs, and credos of the era, Campion nevertheless instills her images with a lived-in feel. We see the mud and the physical realities of the period, not as an absence of modernity or an inverse reflection of our own times but simply as a world in which people, as always, try to live as well as they can with that which is available to them.
These young lovers, Keats and Brawne, despite the period’s garb and standards of decorum, could be a star-crossed couple from anywhere across the spectrum of human time. Keats’ friends fear the distraction from total commitment to his poetic muse; Brawne’s mother rejects the object of her daughter’s affection because of his poverty and unlikely prospects for the future. (Keats’ work was widely ridiculed among established critics of the time.)
Also revelatory is Campion’s telling of this love affair from Brawne’s point of view. In addition to becoming another insightful Campion meditation on female sexuality (think The Piano and In the Cut), Bright Star helps restore Brawne’s historical reputation. Often written off by Keats’ worshipers as a flirt, temptress, and 19th century fashionista, here she is portrayed as a self-confident young woman, none too fond of poetry and able to design and sew her own clothing, creating stitch by stitch much as a poet creates line by line. Though Campion portrays their romance as chaste, the emotions and sensations seem no less sensuous or voluptuous for it. A breeze through a curtain can take your breath away; a scene in which Brawne fills her room with butterflies overflows with unbridled sensation. Campion’s story of a tubercular poet and his lady love recasts the hackneyed old stanza in refreshing new verse.