© 2009 Ray Wong
John Keats is considered one of the greatest romantic poets in the world, of all times. Bright Star follows the three-year romance between Keats and Fanny Brawne.
It is 1818 in London. Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) comes from middle-class family and is a student of high fashion. She's also neighbor with two poets: Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider) and Mr. Keats (Ben Whishaw). The writers think of Fanny as an outspoken flirt, and she is not impressed with literature in general, let alone poetry. But she becomes curious about the quiet, soft-spoken Keats, whose brother is seriously ill.
Fanny's compassion during Keats' grief, the pair reconciles their differences. To the irritation of Mr. Brown, Fanny asks Keats to teach her poetry. Their bond deepens when Fanny realizes how immensely talented, thoughtful and kind Keats is; meanwhile, he's experiencing a "new sensation" that he could only describe as "as if we're dissolving." They develop a romantic connect in secret.
However, their class difference gives them no prospect. Keats has no job and no income -- he's living off Mr. Brown. His poetry is not selling and he considers himself a failure. Then he gets seriously ill, and Fanny tries to attend to him but meets with objections since she and Keats are of no relation. When Fanny's doting mother (Kerry Fox) and Keats' best friend finally realize what is going on, they interfere but Fanny is adamant about her attachment to Keats. She even offers to be engaged to him. However, he knows what a burden he would be for her and he decides to leave for Rome (to recover, or to die?).
Ben Whishaw (Brideshead Rivisited) is affecting and appropriately reserved, contemplative as John Keats. The emotions conveyed in his understated performance are potent. Physically he resembles the slight-built poet. He holds his own opposite the brawny and aggress Mr. Brown and the "hearty" Fanny, played by Abbie Cornish (Elizabeth: the Golden Age). Cornish shows tremendous sensibilities, with a mix of spunkiness and defiance. She reminds me of a young Nicole Kidman. The actors play off each other well and show a quiet, reserved affection for each other.
As Charles Brown, Paul Schneider (Lars and the Real Girl) is crass, brash, and somewhat unrefined, contrary to the fact that he's a poet. Brown is also the sole adversity for Keats and Fanny (despite the fact that the lovers are of different economic classes). However, Schneider is effective in showing his concerns and genuine love for his friend, and his despise for Ms. Brawne is understandable. Kerry Fox (Morning Echo) is lovely as Mrs. Brawne, Fanny's doting and compassionate widowed mother. Edie Martin is cute and extraordinarily unprecocious as Fanny's young sister, Toots. Thomas Sangster (Pinocchio) has a more background role as Fanny's brother, Samuel.
Written and directed by Jane Champion (The Portrait of a Lady), the script is languid, rich and textured. There's really not much of a plot: just two oddly matched people trying to make a go of their on-and-off-again romance. What Champion has succeeded is allow her actors bring the characters to full lives and give them substance and dimensions. The dialogue is witty and appropriately literary: when Keats speaks, he basically does it poetically. The result is a scrumptious script for the minds. Champion also includes some of Keats' famous poems and letters.
The production is handsome, detailed and well crafted. The costumes, especially those of Ms. Cornish's, are remarkable. The cinematography is gorgeous, what with extended sceneries of the four seasons to mark the passage of time. There are key scenes that are so wonderfully and emotionally conceived and executed that we can't help but realize what Keats says, of poetry, is true: It's like taking a swim in the lake -- it's not about getting to shore, but about the experience of the luxurious water, the sceneries, the feeling of being free. Champion takes that to heart and gives us a scrumptious experience. It's not about getting to the end, as we all know what happened to Keats before his 26th birthday.
That said, I'm a bit skeptical about how Champion portrays the relationship between Keats and Fanny. That being early 19th century, I serious doubt they would allow two young, single people to be together, alone, without supervision. Granted, Champion does try to convey the fact that Keats and Fanny are rarely alone, and when they are, they have to cherish every moment. But my skepticism is that the people around them must be blind to not notice the mutual affection between the two. In the real world in 1818 London, I'd think they would be much more reserved and careful.
Also, Champion spends almost a whole hour depicting Keats' illness and deterioration. While that is an important part of the story and further shows Fanny's devotion to Keats against all odds, the pacing and gravity drag the film down. Personally, I'm more enamored with the first half of the film in which Keats and Fanny are trying to hide their feelings for while being impossibly drawn toward each other. Perhaps I'm too much of a romantic; the later scenes don't really do much for me -- it feels too heavy, in a "disease of the weak" sort of way.
In summary, however, Brigth Star is a beautiful story about one of our greatest poets and his romance, and we want so hard for them to prevail even though we know exactly what happened. Jane Champion has given us a tender and rich love story without resorting to sex and violence. Simple love stories still exist, and that has brightened my day.
Stars: Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Kerry Fox, Paul Schneider, Edie Martin, Thomas Sangster, Gerard Monaco, Antonia Campbell-Hughes
Director: Jane Champion
Writer: Jane Champion
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.9 out of 10