In telling the story of the final years in the brief life of poet John Keats, “Bright Star” very easily could have been a stuffy, period costume drama.
Instead, writer-director Jane Campion has fashioned a fascinating mix of contradictions. Her film is at once gritty and ethereal, grounded and romantic, quaint and contemporary. Those appealing contrasts extend to the casting choices, as well, with the pale, reserved Ben Whishaw playing off the vibrant, assured Abbie Cornish.
One of the smartest moves Campion made was to focus on a short, pivotal period for Keats, rather than trying to construct a comprehensive (and potentially cursory) biopic. “Bright Star” follows the three-year relationship that began in 1818 between the writer and Fanny Brawne, his next-door neighbor in Hampstead, north London. It was a time of great productivity for him, as we’d later come to appreciate, but it’s also when he experienced his only true love.
Fanny, a flirty and style-obsessed 18-year-old, may not seem like an ideal fit for the 23-year-old Keats at first — and his collaborator Charles Brown, played by a brash and scene-stealing Paul Schneider, does his best to exert his territoriality and keep them apart. As Fanny states in her typically blunt way after reading Keats’ work for the first time, “I wanted to adore it.” But in time they become fascinated by the foreignness of each other, until they eventually become inseparable.
Physically, they never progress beyond hand-holding and a few chaste kisses, but the charge those acts carry is palpable. Like the dreamy white light that streams in from the windows of Fanny’s country home, the emotion of “Bright Star” bursts through the stillness and grabs you.
It’s a gorgeous, sensual film (shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser), with pastoral touches reminiscent of Terrence Malick — and similar to his work, it might actually be too quiet at times. Lying in a field of purple flowers or strolling through the woods conveys a sense of impressionistic melancholy. Back to reality, Keats and Fanny press their palms and ears to the wall that separates their bedrooms, just to feel near each other.
Of course, they can never marry. This is one of the more obvious elements of “Bright Star.” Fanny, who designs clothes and lives at home with her widowed mother (Kerry Fox), younger brother Samuel (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and younger sister Toots (the adorable Edie Martin), must wind up with a man who’s more financially established, not a penniless poet. And so we know their love is doomed, long before Keats lets loose his first hacking coughs of the tuberculosis that will claim him at 25.
Campion depicts all this from Fanny’s perspective. Keats’ words — from some of his best-known poems, including “Endymion,” “Ode to a Nightingale” and the titular, Fanny-inspired “Bright Star” — crop up organically throughout the picture, rather than arriving in big, stagy recitations. But the ache of young love is all hers, and as our guide, Cornish provides a compelling directness.
They’ve frumped her up a bit here from the blonde good looks she’s exuded in previous films like “Stop-Loss” and even “Candy,” in which she played a junkie opposite Heath Ledger. But the innocence and intensity of her character’s love for Keats shines through and makes “Bright Star” surprisingly accessible.