Jane Campion—writer and director of The Piano—is in familiar territory with Bright Star, a lush, intimate, swoon-inducing biopic about the doomed romance between 19th century English poet John Keats and his little-known personal muse, Fanny Brawne. Viewers are apt to find themselves in familiar territory as well, because even if you don’t know your literary history, you can rest reasonably assured knowing where this true-life Romeo and Juliet tale is headed.
As portrayed in Bright Star, Mr. Keats is the king of all proto-emo boys. He’s a skinny, sickly, highly emotional twentysomething, derided and dismissed by everyone in power, who mopes about his rich friend’s house in his floppy black haircut obsessing over death and writing poems about pretty women who would never give him the time of day. As our story gets underway, it’s the summer of 1818 and Keats (played by much-praised Brit thesp Ben Whishaw from Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and The International) has the good fortune to find young Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) among his new neighbors in rural Hampstead.
If Keats is that gloomy kid in the skinny jeans who hangs out in the high school parking lot smoking during lunch, then Fanny is the head of the cheerleading squad. Yeah, even by Regency period standards, Fanny Brawne is a major babe. The daughter of a well-off family, a popular fixture at the country balls outside London and an aspiring fashion designer, Ms. Brawne is almost the polar opposite of Mr. Keats. Naturally, they fall madly in love.
This being the early 19th century, John and Fanny’s mutual appreciation proves to be a bit of a problem. If we’ve learned anything from the novels of Jane Austen it’s that men are required to earn (or at least inherit) a living, women can never marry below their social station and only wealthy landowners live happily ever after.
Campion chronicles the growing love affair between the penniless Romantic poet and his wealthy paramour with patience and visual grace. This isn’t a fast-moving tale, but it’s limned with lovely images: a field of lavender, a softly billowing curtain, a room filled with butterflies. By concentrating on the sights sounds and (perceived) smells of this rarified environment, the director creates a truly sensual atmosphere in which the romance can grow. At the same time, however, Bright Star is not The Piano. It lacks the vibrant, blood-stirring passion, the visceral, earthy quality, the buck-naked Harvey Keitel.
Romantic and poetic and lovely as it is, Bright Star’s rather sterile central love affair is doomed in more ways than one. Keats ended up doing the rock star thing, croaking at a fabulously young age and never living to see his eventual fame and fortune. Audiences waiting for the physical/emotional consummation of Bright Star’s slow-burn sensuality will be left hanging. (Heck, even underaged Romeo and Juliet got to do it before they shuffled off this mortal coil.) Kudos for not confabulating the truth, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Bright Star is missing a certain emotional oomph.
Her hair pulled back, her “amber” eyes flashing, her restrained makeup barely eclipsing her obvious charms, Abbie Cornish makes for a magnetic heroine. But the script’s almost exclusive concentration on Brawne inevitably steals some of the limelight from Keats. As a biopic, Bright Star tells us little about the poet—other than the fact that he seemed to feel things very intently and was hot for his neighbor.
Needless to say, if you got a D in English Lit, Bright Star probably isn’t the romantic ode for you. If you’ve got a taste for chaste love affairs with unhappy endings, however, Bright Star delivers with some palpable chemistry between its leads, a lot of fine costumes, plenty of weeping and some very pretty views of the English countryside.