As steeped in the seasons as nature itself, Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” swirls lyrical poetry about its body like a fine cloak. Sixteen years have passed since Campion’s globally praised film “The Piano” achieved Oscar glory, and she has grown up in the intervening years. While “Bright Star” shares the free spirit and raw passion of its predecessor, “Star” is softer, livelier and infinitely more dazzling.
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Combining period film with a pinch of biopic, “Bright Star” tells the tale of poet John Keats’s (Ben Whishaw, “Brideshead Revisited”) three-year romance with fashion seamstress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish, “Stop-Loss”) until his untimely death at 25.
With prim, sexless demeanors, period films have a tendency to distance audiences. But the great thing about “Bright Star” is that it’s relatable. The relationship between Keats and Brawne could have been pulled out of the pages of any college romance. It’s full of awkwardness, mixed signals and anxiety. Sex is portrayed straightforwardly, not as taboo. Normally, a huge scandal erupts if a character even deigns to kiss the other, but a scene where Fanny offers herself to Keats proves shockingly sensational for the film’s PG rating.
Campion has made a living exploring feminist motivations in her films, and “Bright Star” continues this trend. But beneath its wild core, the film evokes a certain tenderness. Fanny is undoubtedly a strong individual who speaks her mind and does whatever she wants, but she’s also a human being with the capacity to feel, love and give.
“Bright Star” is a film as attentive to appearance as it is to narrative. Campion seamlessly strings together a lush orchestral score, shimmering cinematography and stunning costume design to bring 19th-century England to life. Butterflies illuminate the bedroom, flowers wreath the reclined bodies and kisses melt on top of each other. The frocks have flounce and ruffles and bright overlays. Delicate choir strains ornament the expressive poetry of Keats. It looks, feels and breathes romanticism.
As far as acting goes, Cornish proves that she is more than the homewrecker who broke apart the marriage of Ryan Phillipe and Reese Witherspoon. She plays Fanny Brawne to understated precision, her vain and flirtacious nature evolving into something deeper as the film goes on. In a scene near the film’s end, her perfectly coiffed restraint is punctured by the suddenness of Keats’s death. She begins to ascend the stairs, then halts. Her hands start trembling – she can’t control them as she breaks out into broken sobs. She sinks to the floor, hands still in disarray, and lets out a raw cry: “Mama, I can’t breathe!” It’s a picture of sublime emotion.
While the film is really all about Fanny, Whishaw provides an able supporting role as the sickly, moody John Keats, struggling not only to find inspiration for his poems, but also to dig up the financial means to support Fanny. It’s difficult to play a dying character without coming off as contrived, but Whishaw displays just the right amount of patheticism and pitifulness to pull it off. The chemistry between these two is undeniable, and, despite the confines of society at the time, a surprisingly sizzling romance develops.
“Bright Star” is a heartbreaking love story of magnetic proportions, just barely letting go of the reigns of starched decency to create one of the freshest explorations of female sexuality in a long time. It is a film about living, loving and breathing in beauty — a splendor that is experienced with all five senses, embracing the spirit of Keats’s sensuous poetry.