The elegant Bright Star has director/writer Jane Campion in fine form as her new drama is based on the three-year romance between 19th century poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, which was halted due to Keats' untimely death at the age of 25.
It's about poetry and passion coming together in an invigoratingly brooding way as the film's rating is somewhat determined by societal rules in 1818 Hampstead (North London).
Keats, along with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, is remembered one of the prestigous Romantic bards. But, in his time his was almost penniless, didn't receive much praise for his work, and was in declining health (succumbing to tuberculosis).
Keats (Ben Whishaw of Brideshead Revisited) was 23 when he relocated next door to the family of 18-year-old seamstress Brawne (Abbie Cornish of Stop-Loss). Fanny shared the London residence with widowed mother (Kerry Fox), younger brother Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster of Love Actually) and little sister Toots (Edie Martin).
Campion's subtly capricious scripting includes some mindful dialogue within what is allowed under a certain, if stern, politeness. The sensitive, demure Keats had his differences with an earnest Fanny about the importance of poetry and fashion. They would slowly begin to grow on one another, being able to comprehend the "strain to work out" and the "holiness of the heart's affections". The key to this was Fanny reaching out to Keats' very sick younger brother.
The actors are allowed more room to breathe and the presentation and storytelling has an exquisite intimacy about it that may overcome any pretentious and cynical measuredness. Their romance, a secret liason, is shown through poetry reading, gentle kissing, besides hand-to-hand contact. It's interesting in this less intellectual approach of sweet, lovely unrest that the actions, interaction, and physicality does a lot for an inextricable connection.
Fox (remembered from Campion's masterful An Angel at My Table) brings understated steely assurance to a concerned mother, while American actor Paul Schneider (Away We Go, Lars and the Real Girl) is a scene-stealer as Keats' ardent, impish stocky friend and roommate.
A seraphic Whishaw seems well cast for a role evinced with some tenderness and fragility and develops a clear rapport with Cornish, in ways exceeding romances depicted in other arthouse fare earlier this year like Easy Virtue and Cheri. But, the Australian Cornish (maybe more recognizable from Elizabeth: The Golden Age) stands out and delivers from Campion's use of Fanny as the vantage point to John's milieu before his premature demise. Her committed performance and a vivid sense of time and place, with a brief stop in Italy, helps elevate a sumptuously lyrical look at actual events from Keats into something honest and heartfelt for arthouse cineastes.