“There is a holiness to the heart’s affections”
Director Jane Campion has always been one of those names who’s work I just never had the pleasure of viewing. Finally, a few years back, I had the opportunity to see The Piano almost fifteen years after its release. It definitely lived up to expectations and with a couple of her works getting the Criterion DVD treatment recently, the chance to watch her new tale of John Keats and love Fanny Brawne at the Toronto International Film Festival couldn’t be passed up. Campion herself was there to introduce the Special Presentation screening and spoke about how this story was pure to her. Spanning two years of first love between a beloved poet and his muse, the tale is at the same time both heartwarmingly genuine in its passion and crushingly tragic in its aftermath. She gets the period style just right and brings out two amazing turns from her leads; there are very little, if any, faults with Bright Star.
The story that takes place in the 19th century, a time where a man couldn’t even conceive of the notion to marry unless he had a job and influx of money. When the man in question is a poet, you can imagine how hard a feat that can be—his work relying solely on critical acclaim and the success of his books—weak at best if one shop owner is to be believed that he bought twenty to sell and none had left his gaze. Living with a friend and fellow poet, Keats and Charles Armitage Brown find themselves with a lot of time on their hands to craft and create their next best artwork. The two rent space from the Brawne family, well Brown does since he is the one with money, and spend most moments alone behind closed doors seemingly doing very little of anything. Eventually, curiosity, and being fed-up with the sarcastic cruelty of Brown, makes young Fanny decide to meet Keats and gauge his make-up. The man is a virtual recluse except when caring for his deathly ill brother, using all his free time to think and compose. This meeting intrigues them both and is the first step to their budding relationship together, one that sees her critiquing his words before eventually being the subject of them.
Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, as Brawne and Keats respectively, completely embody their characters and bring them to life onscreen. They know their motivations and their place in the world, she falling in love with him, knowing he can’t love her due to his place in society’s hierarchy, and he falling for her, knowing he can’t until he sells his words and earns the right to. Social restraints notwithstanding, the two begin a (not so) secret union of love built on mutual respect and affection. Both very young, this is their first relationship, and one of the greatest details of the film is in portraying it just that way. When Cornish and Whishaw kiss, they do so gently and slow, closed mouth and no movement. They are unsure what to do and that naïve innocence makes the courting so real and effective to watch. Their love is so strong that any adversity is made so much more relevant and all encompassing to their world. When Keats must leave to write abroad, they both write letters, feeling the emptiness of loss until a reply is received. Brawne is so smitten and taken by his words of true love, how he would rather live a lifetime of three days with her as a butterfly than fifty common years weighed down by responsibilities of earth, she begins capturing the flying creatures, making her bedroom a sanctuary for them to fly about.
Two years together and a bond unbreakable, their love is beautiful in its simplicity. Always so pure, (is Campion ever correct on that statement), and childlike in reverence, they want nothing more than to be together. Her parents allow the relationship to continue even though they know he must become a success before letting her leave them and the only real blockade comes from Keats’ friend Brown, played wonderfully by Paul Schneider. An actor that steals most scenes he is in, in every movie on his filmography, Schneider adds the comic relief and a bit of conflict. Wanting the space and time to do his work with Keats, each time Brawne comes by to steal her love away, Brown is always quick with a quip to put her down and complain about the intrusion. But it is a playful relationship they have, as Brawne is never shy to shoot back with a biting word timed to perfection. Schneider infuses the role with so much heart, as he usually does, in his love for Keats and friendship with Fanny. When true tragedy strikes, he becomes a beacon of strength, for the most part, and holds himself responsible in keeping his poet friend safe.
Bright Star is a romance for sure, and its bittersweet ending only bolsters that fact. Nothing can come between the love both Cornish and Whishaw portray in the film. The hardships that hit them make their bond ever stronger, realizing how much they need each other. Risking the rumors and talking behind their backs of a love frowned upon and socially rejected, nothing else matters as they are their own world, living together through it all, even with death knocking at the door. The metaphor of the butterflies resonates so fully when you look at the short time Keats and Brawne have with one another on this earth. They take that time and live without regret, knowing that without the other they would have nothing. Any credibility in his poetry comes from his feelings for her and her purpose for going on lives within him. So subtle and immense in its details, Jane Campion has crafted a romance to engross and affect all those who take the time to watch it. Highly recommended for sure, its simplicity hides its immense emotional worth, making for a film not to be taken lightly.
Bright Star 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival