by Francine Schwartz
Bright Star, written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano), is visually lovely, but as a cinema experience it disappoints. The film is composed of a stream of pastoral scenes set in a country estate in Hampstead, England in the early 1800s—an ongoing collage of beauty. Soft breezes that come in through the window and blow wisps of hair around the heroine’s face, joyous walks on the heath, flowers in the tall grass, snow on the grounds. But all this cannot overshadow the stops and starts of the movie and the feeling that it is going nowhere. You find yourself waiting for the story to kick in and flow, but it somehow never does.
Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and her family live next to the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his mentor, Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider). The amorous feelings that Fanny and Mr. Keats have for each other are apparent moments after the film begins. But we are to understand relatively quickly that society’s rules regarding income and station prohibit the two from being married. In spite of that, the two refuse to exist apart. And she becomes his muse. They take walks together on the grounds, gaze at each other longingly, and sometimes they speak to each other through the lines of Keats’ poems. But if the goal was to depict a longing that is full of passion and desire, Bright Star misses.
For those of us who enjoy Keats’ poetry, it’s a treat to hear the lines spoken so well against the sumptuous and romantic background of the countryside and softly lit interiors. And it’s pleasing to observe the fashions of the times—the detail in its ruffles, crocheted shawls, gauzy sleeves, and elaborate hats. But don’t be surprised to find yourself ready for the end of the movie anytime, rather than savoring each moment like you are likely to have done watching Ms. Campion’s exquisitely sensuous film, The Piano.
Shot by Greig Fraser, it is indeed the visual aspect of the movie that is Bright Star’s best part. Nature is the match for Keats’ romantic verse and letters to Ms. Brawne. Mr. Whishaw is believable as a frail poet who is plagued with a sense of failure and who loves Fanny in spite of what society tells him he cannot do. Ms. Cornish is lovely in her portrayal of Fanny—crisp, pure of heart, witty and a flirt, but unflinchingly devoted to her Mr. Keats. But to compare the depth of this performance to the one she delivered as Candy in the movie of the same name, where she played a young addict opposite Heath Ledger, we see what is perhaps missing in the movie as a whole. We are not taken in. We do not go inside the characters. What should be fire is warm at best, in spite of what we know is supposed to be the passionate, though unconsummated love between the two main characters. We are too easily able to maintain a distance from them. Nothing takes hold of our emotions for the two hours we spend in the movie theater. Rather, we leave our seats easily, exit the theater and go about our business.