Directed by: Jane Campion
Starring: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Thomas Sangster, Kerry Fox, Antonia Campbell-Hughes
Beautifully photographed, filled with meadows of daffodils and bluebells, brimming with authentic-looking detail and with two beautiful people at its center, Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star—about the love affair between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish)—is such a restrained and Masterpiece Theatre proper work that it virtually defies you not to respect it. Depending on how you look at it, that’s either a plus or a minus. I confess it’s just a little too genteel for my tastes, with its formalism and its little doses of Mozart. Or rather, it would be were it not for Paul Schneider’s complex and often refreshingly rude performance as Keats’ friend and biographer Charles Armitage Brown. Schneider—and to be fair the character Campion wrote for him—keeps the reverence and restraint somewhat in check.
Actually, the first half of Bright Star is much less standard biopic than the overall film tends to feel. The tone is light and agreeably humorous during the introductions of Fanny, Keats and Brown. Fanny sending her brother (Thomas Sangster) to buy a copy of Endymion so she can discern whether or not Keats is “an idiot” is an especially nice touch. There’s just enough foreshadowing—of the sketchy health of the poet and the resultant impossibility of a happy ending—to keep the doomed romance aspect hovering over the film without overpowering it. There are also other nice touches—not the least of which is Brown lecturing the Brawne family on how seeing a writer not actually in the process of writing is not an indication that he’s doing nothing.
Once the film gets into the throes of the romance itself—and even more into Keats’ deterioration from tuberculosis—it becomes more staid, and much more a standard romantic biopic. (It may in part be that consumptives are so much a part of romantic fiction.) What continues to keep the movie more alive than it would be otherwise is the presence of Brown. It also keeps things a good deal more interesting in terms of complexity and subtext, since it’s never clear how much of Brown’s objections to Keats’ relationship with Fanny are grounded in artistic concern and how much in pure jealousy. In any event, the film would be something of a very respectable chore without him.
People interested in a movie about Keats and his doomed love affair with Fanny Brawne are unlikely to be disappointed, while those less drawn to the material may well find that Schneider’s portrayal of Brown tips the scales in its favor. And those of us who have been following Asheville native Schneider’s career are likely to find extra interest in Bright Star. Rated PG for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking.