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Poets have never been served well on the big screen; why is it so difficult to show artists practicing their art without getting ludicrous? The nadir of poetic biopics is Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995), which paired the doubly-miscast Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis as the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine. The former’s name often sounds like “Rambo” when spoken, and the rest of the movie follows suit, to giggle-provoking effect.
So it’s to Jane Campion’s credit that, in her film about 19th century British poet John Keats’ affair with Fanny Brawne, Bright Star, never descends to those depths. If anything, Campion errs in the opposite direction, not highlighting the act of literary creation but rather the romance, which makes the film more conventional and more palatable.
Campion’s film covers the final years of Keats’ tragically short life (he died in Rome at age 25 of tuberculosis), when headstrong, intelligent Fanny became his muse and lover. Poetically illiterate, Fanny was a talented seamstress and consistently spoke her mind on various subjects, a rarity for a woman of that time. In that sense, she’s of a piece with the strong-willed heroines of Campion’s other films, from her debut, Sweetie, to her most recent feature, In the Cut. That Campion presents their relationship entirely from Fanny’s point of view might be historically suspect but dramatically correct, since it concentrates on them as people, not as a martyred poet and his long-forgotten muse.
It also allows Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish to give splendidly authentic portrayals. Whishaw’s strong acting as Keats never turns him into the eternally moribund artist, which would have been the easy way out. He also plays Keats’ youthfulness as part of his personality, which humanizes him considerably.
Still, it’s Cornish’s Fanny that pushes Bright Star above the usual moribund movie fare that tramples on real-life stories like so many wild elephants. Cornish is that rare actress who never falls into the trap of over-emoting, instead burrowing into the soul of every character she plays, whether an addict in Candy, a returning Iraq War soldier’s girlfriend in Stop-Loss, or even a young American girl in France in A Good Year. Similarly, as Fanny, Cornish’s wonderfully subdued acting makes us care for her and her love for Keats. When she hears the news of his death and doubles over sobbing as if she were in physical pain, it’s an emotionally gut wrenching moment of the kind one rarely experiences onscreen.
Campion’s luscious visual palette (high marks to Greig Fraser’s impressively tangy cinematography) never sinks to the annoyingly expressionistic look of the earlier Sweetie, The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady. And early 19th century England is presented realistically, as it was lived, not as it’s supposed to look in the movies: for example, the scenes where Keats’s poetry (especially excerpts from his epic poem "Endymion") is read are handled in an off-hand, almost casual manner, what is probably was like in reality.
Even though it’s being marketed as a heart-melting romance (and can certainly be enjoyed that way), Bright Star tells an adult story with penetrating intelligence, making it Campion‘s best film since An Angel at My Table, her 1990 biopic about New Zealand writer Janet Frame. Maybe she should stick to real people.
Bright Star Directed and written by Jane Campion Starring Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Paul Schneider Opens September 18, 2009
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