Atoning for a past of artful but turgid films choking on their own bloated sense of importance, director Jane Campion delivered her finest work to date with Bright Star (2009). This intense, impassioned study of the unconsummated, ill-fated love affair of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, works its magic like an ode to the art of poetry and our own love of the English language. Working from only sketchy biographical details, including many of Keats’ letters to Fanny, Campion convincingly transports us back to early 19th century England.
Keats (Ben Whishaw) is an impoverished poet whose publication has yet to translate into financial prosperity. Daily he engages in writing sessions with best friend and fellow poet Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), but a neighbour, the inquisitive Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) soon has him interested in something other than literary pursuits. As a young man mired in poverty, however, he has to fight an instinct within begging him to stay away from Fanny, for his inability to provide for any woman is like a constant lance in his side.
As a kind of love triangle, interesting dynamics emerge from Campion’s gloriously literate screenplay, incorporating a liberal smattering of Keats’ poetry. The gently derisive jabs at Fanny from Brown may be construed as playful, but behind them is real venom. From one angle it may seem that he’s only being protective of Keats and the integrity of the creative process, for it’s a privilege to share ideas with a young man he regards as a gift to the artform. But slowly emerging are deeper feelings that are equally responsible for his barely-veiled petulance as Fanny’s presence begins to inspire a more noticeable and undesirable effect on Keats and his frame of mind.
It’s the underlying complexities of these relationships that enhance the film’s painstakingly-crafted aesthetic beauty and some of its subtle recurrent themes: of creation unhindered by love and its diverse definitions; of a finite existence embraced for the preciousness of every moment.
Despite the exceptional work of Whishaw, so horribly miscast in Perfume (2006), and Cornish who convey a realistic chemical reaction, it’s Schneider who steals the show with an electric performance as the caustic, discontented Brown. Unapologetically condescending, he seems constantly wired, his impregnation of a naïve housemaid coming across as sadly misdirected, a kind of sordid compensation for what he really desires.
Campion has always displayed an innate musical sense at least, her past collaborations producing exceptional work from Wojciech Kilar (1996’s Portrait of a Lady) and Michael Nyman (1993’s The Piano). Her choice of composer here was newcomer Mark Bradshaw whose sparingly used music is saved for maximum impact in perhaps six or seven scenes. It works brilliantly in every one and leaves you wanting more.
I’ve struggled to love this director’s past work, especially the provocative, sleazy In the Cut (2003) and the abomination that is Holy Smoke (1999) – despite, it must be said, an incredibly brave Kate Winslet performance. But her latest film is a real tonic, providing unexpected redemption and wiping away the stain of those past ‘misdemeanors’. Bold, romantic, and genuinely moving as it counts down to its inevitable conclusion, Bright Star glitters with every potent word, every helpless silent gesture, to create something of intoxicating beauty.