‘Bright Star’

Weaving a bold poetic story about love


Jane Campion’s heroines always seem to labor under the weight of suffering womanhood, even when they’re empowered and supposedly in control (witness the prickly discomfort of “In the Cut’s” Meg Ryan) but her latest, Fanny Brawne (played with dazzling excellence by Abby Cornish), in “Bright Star” is warm, confident, passionate: a woman unafraid to bask in her own self-made happiness. Fanny’s introduction into the story belies her raison d’e^tre; the camera zooms in on her fingers, pushing a needle through a piece of fabric, over and over. Could this be a prelude to yet another Campion femme, forced into household drudgery by some ham-fisted, chauvinistic goon? But no — “Bright Star” wastes no time in depicting Fanny as a talented seamstress whose dress designs bring her a modest but adequate income. Her wardrobe is all her own creation and the striking colors and bold, fun designs (the triple mushroom collar would make Jil Sander envious) are a perfect match for her vivid personality.

Fanny is one half of the centerpiece of “Bright Star,” an imagined love story between her and John Keats (Ben Whishaw), one of England’s greatest poets. The two meet in 1818 when Fanny was 18 and John was 23. She was, literally, the girl next door and also the daughter of John’s landlady (Kerry Fox). Despite the versatility of his pen, John hardly made enough to sustain himself and, at this time, was sharing extremely cramped living quarters with his friend Charles Armitage (Paul Schneider), while supporting his ill brother Tom. John was, in fact, the epitome of the starving artist (Whishaw’s extreme thinness is very effective here). Fanny, on the other hand, is drawn as a strapping young woman with a saucy manner that caused the possessive Charles (Paul Schneider) to remark with a sneer: “She’s made a religion out of flirting!”

Bright Star
Director Jane Campion
Run Time 119 minutes
Language English

Campion gently waters the emotional bond that sprouts between John and Fanny, and then wisely steps back and lets it flower into a secret, heated passion. Keat’s letters to Fanny — the object of much scrutiny by Keatsians — show a feverish but unconsummated love, cut short by the poet’s death at the age of 25. Fanny was the inspirational source of one of Keats’ most beautiful works: “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” This is the one where the lover cannot have the woman he adores but the poem’s narrator consoles him; “She cannot fade though thou has not thy bliss. Forever wilt thou love and she be fair!” The notion that nongratification is more precious than physical fulfillment is a recurring theme in Keats’ poems and in the film — it’s certainly the defining factor of the Fanny/John relationship. Circumstances once have them living in the same house and at night, they simultaneously press their cheeks to the thin wall separating their beds.

Living as closely as they do, it would seem easy for John and Fanny to get intimate, but apart from a few stolen kisses, they have no opportunity to express what’s in their hearts. Fanny’s mother disapproves of their friendship and sends along Fanny’s kid sister (the delightful Edie Martin) and brother (Thomas Sangster) to chaperone their meetings, usually on the neighborhood heath. At times they come off as the steamiest (albeit fully clothed) couple in cinema history, but often, they must endure long periods of separation, mainly due to John’s poor health. Such times are marked by a frenzy of letter writing on both sides — and there’s a touching scene of Fanny waiting forlornly on the side of the road, ready to accost the postman.

Fanny also gets creative in John’s absence and constructs a “butterfly garden” in honor of their love. Together with her siblings, Fanny catches butterflies in wispy nets and keeps them in jars until the delicate creatures are released into the room where they settle on window panes painted white for the occasion, on linen curtains swaying gently in the breeze, and on ceiling beams bathed golden in the sunlight. Even in her darkest films Campion has always created pockets of unforgettable visual imagery, isolated moments of sheer poetry, briefly glimpsed but utterly savored. In “In the Cut” for example, the film’s gloom is balanced by brief bursts of color and freshness; like the pink flower petal that falls from a tree to stick to the back of Meg Ryan’s bare knee.

But in “Bright Star,” it’s as if Campion has released herself from whatever was restraining her all these years because the film is liberally, delightfully splattered with glorious light and joyous color. There’s no political agenda here, just a simple wish to pay tribute to a tragic, romantic love, suspended in a cocoon of eternal longing and eternal youth.