The opening credits hover over a close-up of needle going through fabric. The image speaks to the diligence and nimbleness needed to craft clothes, poetry or prolonged, unconsummated desire. It also lets us know that Bright Star will diligently hunker down for the worm’s-eye view should it yield another sharpened physical detail for writer/director Jane Campion to weave into this tapestry-like romance, something best surrendered to as with a current. Just lie on your back and watch the patterns unfold.
John Keats died young, and if his poetry went woefully underappreciated during his life at least it was redeemed by the not easily earned devotion of its muse. Bright Star, though inspired by Andrew Motion’s Keats biography, isn’t about Keats. It doesn’t burn much celluloid trying to turn writerly brooding or hand-numbing penmanship into cinema. Its protagonist is instead young middleclass seamstress Fanny Brawne, the first girl in all of Hamstead Heath to have a triangular pleated mushroom collar. When she first meets Keats—the year is 1818—she challenges the reverence aimed at the poet’s vocation, championing handsome, useful, innovative and well-made clothing over delicate words of limited practical power. The antagonism between Fanny (Abbie Cornish) and Keats (Ben Whishaw) is kept honest through the ubiquity of Keats sidekick Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), a Scottish poet as big, burly and gruff as Keats was elfin, diminutive and soft-spoken. Their intriguingly un-straightforward triangle is just one of many forces working against the fulfillment of Fanny and Keats, another being Keats’ poverty. But as imagined here, theirs was a love emboldened by ceaseless tension. The film’s vivacity is the product of a harmonious collaboration between sensitive camerawork, production design, scoring and actors, at least one of whom giving the first outstanding work of what promises to be an outstanding career.
Cornish’s performance is of the sort where you can’t decide whether it’s a case of a role being perfectly cast or whether the actor’s invested the role so generously with some secret culled from within that she’s made alternate interpretations unthinkable. That confusion of unfamiliar and overwhelming emotions that clutches youth can be read in Cornish’s face and distracted hands especially. Imperious and anxious, she has the sort of face that when directed at you makes you uncertain if her gaze is one of derision or desire. What isn’t ambiguous is that you have her complete attention. Complimenting Cornish, Whishaw picks up where his Dylan-via-Rimbuad in I’m Not There left off, every smile teasing, every adoring glance half-misted over with the young poet’s inclination to admire Beauty in general as to recognize it in the specifics of his lover’s person. It works very well, while Schneider seems to growing into himself as an actor more and more—he’s more suited to this sort of bullying and jealous dreamer than he was to the agonized young lover in All the Real Girls.
So our stars are exceptional in their roles as young lovers, leaving us with the more difficult question of whether or not this sort of young love translates into exceptional movies, a question Bright Star doesn’t easily resolve. It seems perfectly unconcerned with the proscribed meter of classical storytellng, but the rhythm it adopts instead is almost unintentionally lulling, swerving from bliss to ennui, going up and down with young love’s customary tumult. The film possesses no shortage of moments sublime or nearly so, but these moments don’t add up to a great deal of momentum. So be it. Swooning heights of beauty and feeling trump structural rigour, and that’s fine by me.
What Campion excels at here is fidelity to the subjective experience of her characters, which requires both the acknowledgement of societal limitations—such as the presumptions made by Brown and others that young women are poorly fit to comprehend poetry—and a way of evoking sensuality that embraces the transcendental. In dealing with the latter challenge, Bright Star seems to share a certain kinship with the films of Terrence Malick, The New World most especially, not only because of its star-crossed period romance but because of its grounding in the celebration of nature found in poetry. Chalk it up to mimetic license: a poetic movie about poetry, and one teeming with loveliness.