On the surface, Bright Star marks a rather startling departure for Jane Campion, the Oscar winning writer-director best known for unique, explicit explorations of human sexuality like The Piano and In the Cut. It’s a PG rated, 19th century set affair and the nudity is restricted to the occasional bared leg. But anyone familiar with the passionate, free-flowing verse of John Keats (Ben Whishaw) will recognize that Campion’s returned again to her most familiar subject in depicting the poet’s romance with neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
It’s a film that sacrifices physical sensuality for that found in the composition of a couplet, in words like these from the sonnet Keats wrote from which the film derives its name: “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast, to feel forever its soft fall and swell, awake forever in a sweet unrest.” The picture trades in restraint, as any unfolding in high society 19th century England must, but all one need do is look beyond the stilted awkwardness with which Keats propels the courtship forward to discover a work blessed with keen insight into the heart and soul.
Shot without a wealth of garish period detail, mostly focusing on naturally lit interiors and impressionistically colored exteriors, the movie begins with the uncomfortably shy Keats’ introduction to the headstrong Fanny and traces the slow but steady development of their romance. The usual impediments develop. A bad case of jealousy bewitches Keats’ best friend and writing partner Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) and the still anonymous poet’s lack of an income reduces his desirability to everyone but Fanny.
Yet none of these obstacles come across as the forced clichés they might have in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Charles is big, brash and often rude, but his resentment for Fanny never seems outsized for an individual desperate to keep his preternaturally talented friend on target. Though Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox) raises her objections to the pairing, she doesn’t act as the typical comically overwrought mother type one expects from films of the period. Rather than obsessing over money and relentlessly driving her daughter away from her true love, she recognizes the depth of Fanny’s feelings and comes to support her. Campion enriches the film with her eye for the complexities in relationships, particularly her refusal to codify human behavior strictly in shades of good vs. evil, us vs. them.
The reduction in breadth — deemphasizing the wider world for the small, more personal one Keats and Fanny share — creates an atmosphere of steadfast focus that allows the smallest nuances to play out as they should. Unconcerned with the frenetic pacing that’s become the increasing cinematic standard Campion creates a deliberately built atmosphere to luxuriate in, one marked by leisurely outdoor strolls caught in wide shots, thoughtful conversations, intimate family dinners and good, old-fashioned pining. When the characters speak they do so thoughtfully, expressing their feelings in verse, through anecdotes or the words of souls wiser than their years.
The role of Keats falls in line with the introspective dreamer parts Whishaw played in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and I’m Not There, and few current actors are quite as accomplished at using expressions and mannerisms, like constantly darting eyes, to suggest profound inner torment. However, the picture takes Fanny’s perspective and is in large part Cornish’s show. She projects strength and vulnerability as a woman ahead of her time in every sense: professionally, in an age of very limited options for women, she designs clothes. Personally, she believes the desires of the heart transcend all. The actress, a casting coup for Campion, reveals the full measure of Fanny’s deep, powerful love for Keats and invaluably assists the transformation of a film about an unconsummated relationship into a work of intense erotic feeling.