In a cinematic world of often coarse and soulless sex, Bright Star is a beacon of genteel intimacy. Its love story is told not in harsh heavings, but in whispered stanzas and fingertips delicately reaching. Like a string of poems, it changes in mood and rhythm, but its steadfast theme is the power of anticipation. Love in this film is in the longing.
It’s also in the details — gorgeous photography, dazzling natural beauty, wonderful costumes and other historic elements, actors and actresses who are so perfect they seem to have been cast in heaven.
The most tragic story in English literature is the early death of poet John Keats — dead in Italy at age 25 from tuberculosis, convinced he was a failure, far from his beloved English countryside and the woman he adored. Only later would he be acknowledged, along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as a god in the second generation pantheon of Romantic poets.
Keats scholars have long argued the true nature of the poet’s relationship with Fanny Brawne. Some think Fanny was merely a passing fancy. Others, such as biographer Andrew Motion (Keats), consider her to be the muse of some of the poet’s most transcendent work. Basing her Bright Star script on Motion’s book, Australian director Jane Campion unfolds the couple’s story, not from the perspective of the famous poet, but from that of the lesser known seamstress who stole his heart. In a similar vein to her Oscar-winning 1993 film, The Piano, Campion weaves artistic beauty with a ruthless excavation of the toll history took on women who dared to feel passion.
It’s 1818 in the village of Hampstead, next to Hampstead Heath, a large and ancient woodland inside London. Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish, A Good Year) sews constantly, transforming ordinary cloth and ribbon into unique, colorful fashions which she wears with great pride. She lives in one-half of a house with her widowed mother (Kerry Fox, Storm), her younger brother Samuel (Thomas Sangster), and her little sister, a red-headed cherub nicknamed “Toots” (Edie Martin).
Lodging in the rooms next door is businessman turned poet, Charles Armitage Brown, a brash, hulking bear (played by Asheville native, Paul Schneider, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Brown and Fanny can’t stand one another. In the opening scenes, their sharp-tongued sparring proves both are quick of wit and single-minded. They are enemies and their battleground will soon be their different ways of loving the same man.
Enter Brown’s younger friend, John Keats (Ben Whishaw, I’m Not There), a former medical student who has just published Endymion (“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever…”), an epic poem in rhyming couplets. Its sensual, dreamlike imagery endeared him to an admiring circle of literati but infuriated hostile critics. With his few possessions, Keats moves into Brown’s rooms.
Unlike Brown, Keats refuses to treat women cavalierly. “There is a holiness to the heart’s affections,” he insists. Penniless, Keats is in no position to marry anyway, so he tries to keep his emotions bottled up. But Fanny breaks through his barriers. She is drawn like a magnet to the magnificent soul encased in his slight, sickly body. Soon, the two of them are madly in love, sneaking tender kisses on the sofa, walking hand-in-hand on the heath, feeling one another’s presence against the house wall that separates them. Doomed by poverty and illness, their intimacy is deeper for never being fulfilled.
Brown sees himself as Keats’ literary protector and despises Fanny, who he fears will distract Keats from his poetry. “She knows only how to flirt and sew!” he rages at Keats. But Keats pays no heed to such warnings. Distract him, Fanny does, not from his work, but from his woes. While in her thrall, Keats writes some of his most sublime lines:
Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou art…
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.
To fully appreciate the film Bright Star, you’ll need to embrace its unhurried pace and not worry if you miss a word or two due to the English accents. Like poetry, you can always go back and enjoy it again.