Fanny Brawne wants to be noticed. That much is clear from the opening scenes of Jane Campion’s newest film, Bright Star, as she painstakingly stitches outlandish outfits and engages in clever repartee with suitors. She believes that everything can be perfect, from her precisely hand-made clothing to her romances.
When she catches the attention of young poet John Keats, all that changes.
Their story is one of the helplessness of young love, of uncontrollable emotions and circumstances. Brawne and Keat’s dramatic love affair inspired some of Keat’s greatest poems, which are well served here.
The film is visually spectacular, with Campion using the natural imagery of Keats’s poetry to reflect the tumultuous nature of young love.
When the couple is together and happy the English countryside blossoms, full of flowers and butterflies. When they are apart, it rains and snows incessantly.
In Bright Star, the audience is absorbed entirely in Fanny’s world. Abbie Cornish is spectacular as Fanny, coming into her own after languishing in minor roles in films like 2008’s Stop-Loss. Here she performs with extraordinary restraint, playing Fanny with a sense of trembling, barely contained passion . She allows the audience to experience with Fanny the gradual unravelling of her tightly wound composure.
An experienced director, Campion is a rarity in being both a female and an Australian filmmaker. The film is rife with her trademark intimacy, best showcased in her Oscar-winning film, The Piano. In Bright Star, it is as if Campion is whispering the story directly into the audience’s ear.
However, she erred in her treatment of important supporting characters, like Paul Schneider’s Mr. Browne, who is never quite understood because he was not given time to develop.
The audience never has a clear picture of Keats’ life outside of his relationship with Fanny. His writing, illness, and personal life are all experienced from Fanny’s perspective, making the film only loosely biographical. We see Brawne and Keats within the context of their relationship, from its coy beginning to its abrupt end, which is quietly devastating. It’s a thoughtful, moving progression to watch.
Stay for the credits where Ben Whishaw, whose subtle performance as Keats takes a back seat to Cornish’s Fanny, is allowed to shine in a recitation of Keats’ poetry.
Bright Star opens in theatres Oct. 2.