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!”