I don’t know what I was expecting in regards to Bright Star, though I suppose I thought it might irk me a bit, as biopics tend to do–especially when concerning authors. Far too often it seems directors need to sensationalize the stories, add sex and intrigue, muddle up the plot so the movie reads more like a Harlequin than a historical account. In some ways I’m one of the worst kinds of audience members to please in cases like this; I’ve read Andrew Motion’s Keats biography (upon which the film is based), I’ve read close to every Keats poem and a vast majority of his letters and criticism. I’m hard to please.
But from the opening credits–a marvelous close-up of Fanny sewing through linen–I was captivated. The performances are simply inspired, the set-design perfect. Instead of dolling up the late Georgian style, as so many films tend to do, Campion used the starkness and simplicity to draw attention to the characters and seasons. The energy between Abby Cornish (Fanny Brawne) and Ben Whishaw (Keats) practically vibrates on screen. Paul Schneider deserves credit, too, for his portrayal of Keats’s best friend, the poet Charles Armitage Brown, whose condescending and misogynist ways were enough to make me squirm in my seat and mutter darkly under my breath.
I was particularly struck by the way in which Campion allowed the conventions of the time period to add tension to the film, especially in regards to the relationships between women and men. Keats and Fanny play a dance of absolute sexual chemistry but without true release. Charles Brown is ever antagonizing Fanny because he believes she’s inconstant, flirty, and an all-around bad influence on Keats. When the three have a sort of showdown of the minds, Brown is so vicious to Fanny that she simply cannot say a word. Where Campion could have written her witty dialogue and a perfect comeback, she withdraws entirely. You can feel the pressure and panic in Fanny’s response, far more powerful than anything that could have been conveyed with words.
Yet words are truly the heart of the film. As Keats gets progressively more ill–he contracts tuberculosis, a disease that wiped out nearly his entire family–the poetry becomes just as important as Keats’s connection to Brawne. The language needs no help, as Keats, in my mind anyway, is likely one of the greatest poets to ever put words to paper. But to hear the lines recited as if for the first time, to be caught up in absolute magic of the poetry and thrill of creation, is something I’ve never seen demonstrated so well on film. As a writer and lover of poetry, those scenes alone were enough to bring tears to my eyes.
There are many more things I could say about this film–the costumes, the music, the use of light and dark–but in the end it is simply a fine film, likely the finest I’ve seen in the last five years. It kept me thinking far after I left the darkness of the movie theater, the words of Keats’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale” still flitting around my brain.