Jane Campion's Bright Star is a beautiful, well-made biopic of the Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw, very good), with enough visual and Keats poetry to satisfy moviegoers and Keats fans alike, and, more specifically, it is the story of his love affair with Fannie Brawne (Abbie Cornish, very good as well), a next-door neighbor, which is also quite well done. Brawne is actually the main character, so the audience is allowed to fall in love with her as she falls for Keats.
This proves a wise decision for the film, as watching someone write poetry is just hard to portray dramatically, and though Keats was a genius, Fannie, a designer/seamstress and independent young woman, turns out to be quite an involving and believable character on her own.
The film opens, as did this year's Coraline, with a needle and thread magnified to fill the screen, so that one wonders for a few moments if the threads are ropes, and just what's happening, then moves back to show Fannie at work on one of her own new fashions. The web sewn in Bright Star is very much different than the one woven in Coraline, however.
Fannie and Keats encounter each other at home and at neighborhood social gatherings, and Fannie, intrigued, soon buys a copy of his book Endymion, not yet widely recognized, "to see if he's an idiot." Fannie has strong opinions and is happy to test them against the greatest minds she can find, and she certainly finds one in Keats.
There's a strong interplay of gender roles throughout the film. Both Fannie and her mother (Kerry Fox), are extremely strong and practical women who value the arts, fashion, sensitivity, people, love. Keats and his housemate, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider, complex) are more typically male, though poets, with high tolerances for drink, play, sport, carousing and unseriousness. Their encounter with a strong woman like Fannie sobers them up a lot, changes their minds and ultimately their lives.
Convention, as in many of the best period pieces of the era, plays a large determining role in the results of their interactions, and is cunningly played in loaded dialogue which is yet profound, polite, proper and often devastating.
I wasn't read up enough on Keats's life beforehand to know how the story would end, so I won't spoil it for those who may not be aficianadoes themselves, but the courtship between Fannie and John is moving, and moves through and among all the colors of love without getting too sappy. This is hard to do when the poetry read and recited is some of the greatest love poetry ever written, i.e., the template for very much in the way of sappy facsimiles, for all the years after, but both the poetry and the love story get their due.
Whishaw and Cornish are very good as the young lovers, and Fox and Schneider are more complex than their smaller parts would seem to allow. Edie Martin and Thomas Sangster are effective as Fannie's younger siblings, and Antonia Campbell-Hughes is convincing as a serving girl with a complementary subplot to the main story.
Bright Star is a convincing love story, a useful biography and traces the roots and rewards of creativity in the arts. There are also several Keats poems read by the actor Ben Whishaw over the end credits, so you can inform your seat partner early that you won't be leaving until the lights come up.
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