Just because a film is set more than a few decades ago, doesn’t mean it’s a period film. And just because events happened in a particular kind of society 200 years ago, doesn’t mean they are not relevant today. Jane Campion made that clean with her feature The Piano, and she has returned to these roots in her new work, Bright Star.
Set in the last years of the life of Romantic poet John Keats, it follows the story of his love affair with Fanny Brawne, a young woman with a talent for creating clothes as beautiful as Keats’ poems. Both have few options open to them. Keats’ family is poor, and while he is talented, he cannot make a living as a writer and must rely on financial support from friends to stay alive. As a woman, Brawne must marry to survive. However, she is not interested in marriage, and can make a living from her fashion talents.
The early scenes of the budding romance are near perfect: Brawne tries to find a way into Keats’ heart, thinking she has not succeeded when indeed she has. Like so much first love, neither can explain the attraction and yet it seems natural. In one scene, actors Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw perfectly capture the moment of love’s first expression: the inability to look into each other’s eyes when confession affection. Later comes the brief touch of fingers upon wrists, the utter pain of loss of communication and the immediate disappearance of such pain on the arrival of a letter. While these are not untypical experiences of first love, director and actors have us believe they are, or at least believe even the most seemingly maudlin of lines.
This is a film about the struggle of the starving artist, in a world (very similar to today) that tends not to appreciate true artistry until the creator is dead. Keats loves Brawne, but does not wish to marry her for fear of making her a widow, or of not providing a proper income. His friend Brown, also a poet, fears Brawne will drain Keats of his creative drive, when he is really jealous of both Keats and Brawne. Brawne would take the risk where Keats knows he cannot; he is aware of his impending death, and, like his poetry, knows it is best to enjoy the beauty of the moment.
Campion is not afraid to let the camera linger on her actors’ faces, catching every glimpse, gesture and flash of emotion. In a world where only Hollywood cinematic romance is acceptable, it is a risk that pays off. I don’t think it would be a spoiler to say that Wishaw recites a poem of Keats over the closing credits. During the screening I attended, you could have, at this point, heard a pin drop.