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Abby Cornish in BRIGHT STAR (Photo: Apparition)

Written & Directed by
Jane Campion
Produced by
Jan Chapman & Caroline Hewitt
Released by Apparition
Australia/ UK/France. 119 min. Rated PG  
With Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider & Kerry Fox  

A chaste romance between a pretty, unsophisticated teenage girl and an immortal haunted by death didn’t start with Twilight. Jane Campion plumbs this eternal adolescent fantasy with the early 19th-century relationship between the pale poet John Keats and his muse, Fanny Brawne.

As if in an 1818 costume version of Gossip Girl, 18-year-old Fanny (Abbie Cornish) is first seen sewing clothes of her own design. She is preoccupied with froufrou preening and being a stylish example to her young brother and sister. After the serious 23-year-old poet Keats (Ben Whishaw) moves in with his boisterous friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider) into her family’s house, her first comments to them commend pleats and the disdain of poetry. She’s particularly proud that she could earn money from her craft, unlike their limited success. (Keats wrote to a friend after he first met Fanny that she was “beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange.”)

How she gets a second chance to make a first impression—and the impact that has on both of them—is the crux of Bright Star. Going beyond a story of two attractive young people falling in love under restrictive circumstances, Campion, in her first feature in six years, sensitively and slowly explores the interplay between a living, breathing muse and an inspired artist whose words alone will last forever.

Fanny gradually metamorphoses into a worthy muse against the sights and sounds of the change of seasons that suffuses the film, corresponding to the nature imagery of romanticism. She first tentatively re-approaches Keats with sympathy for his ill brother, then tries to understand his poetry on her own before brazenly asking to study literature with him. The cocky Mr. Brown sneers at her attempts and tries to discourage his studious friend from wasting his precious time with a minx.” But Cornish, in an achingly beautiful performance, convinces Keats, and us, that her mind and heart are now soaring higher as her love for poetry and the poet intertwine.

Andrew Motion’s literary biography is the basis for the facts and the links between Keats’s poetry and this most productive period of his life. Campion quietly makes a Regent-era and circumspect romance palpable on the screen, with the couple’s longing practically piercing the wall between their living quarters so that the famous poems spill out of him to fill their separation. (The title comes from a poem Keats inscribed to Fanny).

The lovely cinematography (Greig Fraser has only recently moved on from still photography and short films) externalizes their plight when Keats leaves for dark, crowded quarters, both to save money and to try to suppress the feelings he can’t fulfill. Whishaw makes excruciating Keats’ anguish over having no money to marry, even though their devotion wins over her reluctant mother (Kerry Fox, who starred in Campion’s An Angel at My Table) to finally sanction an engagement.

That Fanny saved what would become some of the most famous love letters ever written supports her growing maturity that Bright Star poignantly charts—making it that much harder for any mortal man since to impress his beloved. Nora Lee Mandel
October 5, 2009



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