Movie Review: Ann Hornaday on Jane Campion's 'Bright Star'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

"Bright Star," Jane Campion's rapturous ode to tragic love, radiates beauty that's at once extravagant and spare, which is altogether fitting for its subjects. The tale of poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, who fell in love in 1818 in London, happens to arrive fully embroidered by the verses Brawne is said to have inspired Keats to write -- the title refers to the opening line of a sonnet Keats reportedly wrote in Brawne's honor: "Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art . . ." -- and it features the added visual allure of the captivating hats and frocks that Brawne concocted as a young fashion student.

But beyond the transporting language and beguiling fashions, theirs was essentially the simplest of stories. They were young, in love with each other and -- socially, economically and finally mortally -- doomed.

Campion ("The Piano") is familiar enough with the ingredients of great romance, and fluent enough with the cinematic tropes to convey them, to essentially get out of the way and let the characters and their story do the work. Photographed with rich, sumptuous detail and elegant staging, "Bright Star" for the most part succeeds in delivering all the visual and sentimental pleasures of the classic costume drama -- all the while advancing the radical notion that the creation of a triple-pleated mushroom collar entails as much virtuosity and care as turning out a flawless sonnet.

At least Fanny Brawne thinks so. As "Bright Star" opens, Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is living in Hampstead, where her neighbor Charles Armitage Brown has invited his best friend Keats (Ben Whishaw) to stay. Romantically gaunt and flushed-looking, Keats initially seems as if he'd be no match for the forthright Miss Brawne. Indeed her fiercest verbal opponent turns out to be not Keats (as Jane Austen might have preferred) but Brown, played by the wonderful Paul Schneider with a ruddy Scottish burr in the film's most fiery performance. So devoted is Brown to Keats's art that at times in "Bright Star" it seems the focus has been unduly pulled from the poet's most passionate relationship.

But when it comes to romance, it's the obstacles that make the movie, and in "Bright Star," Campion exploits them for maximum narrative tension and visual inventiveness. Two of the finest scenes in the film are when Keats and Brawne, trying to elude the prying gaze of a young chaperone, flirt behind her back, then freeze in place when she turns to catch them. The result is a lovely and, yes, poetic tableau vivant. Later, Brawne fills her room with butterflies in a sensual, evanescent homage to her own doomed love.

"Bright Star" is such a feast for the senses, such a lush and pleasing plunge into a world animated by poetry and longing and marvelous hats, that it seems churlish to light on the film's chief weakness. But something seems to be fatally missing from Cornish's portrayal of Brawne. The Australian actress is indisputably beautiful -- her soft, ripe features recall a young Nicole Kidman -- but her restraint in "Bright Star" seems at odds with the spontaneity and wit that Brawne was said to have possessed. Keats was supposed to have considered Brawne a "stylish minx," a young woman of outspoken and lively opinion. But that unpredictable, even controversial creature is largely missing in Cornish's performance, which takes understatement into inertia.

Whishaw's dreamy, wispy Keats doesn't add much ballast to the mix. For that, Campion supplies a gorgeous world filled with nature and music and poetry and fabulous clothes, which become almost characters in themselves. "Bright Star" is that rare, genuinely transporting movie that creates an alternate universe, invites audience members in and lets them sink ever deeper into its particular, sublime reverie.

Bright Star (119 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas) is rated PG for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief profanity and incidental smoking.

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