Poetry in Slow Motion
Bright Star, the new film from Oscar-winning writer/director Jane Campion, is a costume drama about a famous writer and the love that inspired his most famous works. That brief description may sound similar to that of last decade’s Shakespeare in Love, but anyone who goes into this film expecting the joviality and liveliness of its predecessor will be in for quite a shock. Instead, Bright Star pursues a drabber, much more dramatic tone.
The writer at the center of this film is John Keats, today considered one of the most talented poets of the Romantic Movement. However, like many famous artists, Keats was not appreciated in his own time. His work met with mostly negative reviews, his books collected dust on the bookstore shelves and he could not afford to marry the woman he loved. For Keats, that love was Fanny Brawne, a young woman whose previous love had been designing and creating her own unique style of clothing.
First at odds with each other, the two could not fight the growing emotional attachment that developed into a three-year romance that ended abruptly when Keats died prematurely of tuberculosis at age 25. Their romance inspired many of Keats’ most famous poems including the one which in turn inspired this film’s title.
Much of the romance seen in the film comes from Keats’ letters to Fanny while they were separated. These letters were kept private by Fanny, who read them to her children; they were eventually published by her son after her death, becoming as famous and admired as any of Keats’ other work.
The aesthetics of the film are everything you would expect from a Campion film. The costumes are elegantly detailed though not too Hollywood, and the cinematography is at times stunning as Campion frames her characters in blooming fields of flowers or perched on blossoming treetops. A scene in which Fanny turns her bedroom into a butterfly farm is quite remarkable.
The same can be said for the performances of the two leads. As Keats, the always impressive Ben Whishaw is quite good as the fragile artist who knows he will never be able to offer his love anything more than his words. As Fanny, Abbie Cornish is delightful in some scenes and heartbreaking in others. I also enjoyed the girl who plays her little sister, but poor Thomas Sangster seems like he wasn’t given enough to do as her brother.
Now, as remarkable as Cornish is in the scenes that serve as the film’s inevitable emotional crescendo, they would have been that much more effective had I been sucked into the relationship by this point. I can see how in love these two characters are by the loving way in which they gaze at each other and how they are on the edge of their hearts whenever the other enters the room or speaks, but I never really grew emotionally attached to them myself.
Perhaps it is the nature of the source material itself. This is a poetic film about a poet, and poetry can be a difficult thing for many—myself included—to grasp, particularly if they go in cold. It could also be the fact that the film doesn’t always progress smoothly and seems to leap forward at times. For instance, there is a scene in which Fanny is broken-hearted because Keats is staying away in London; then in the very next scene he is back and the courtship continues. Then again, perhaps it is simply the fact that it is a very quiet, slow-moving film that never seems to be able to escape the fact that it is a very depressing tale.
Whatever the cause, despite the excellent production values and the terrific performances of its leads, Bright Star failed to draw me in and I left the theater feeling depressed and a little bored.
Bright Star is rated PG for “thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking.” I’ve seen more sensuality and language in a G-rated Disney movie, so it must be the “incidental smoking” that pushes it to PG. Well, that and the teen pregnancy, I guess.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Bright Star.