A thing of beauty is a joy forever. These simple words, that constitute the opening line of Endymion by John Keats, also function as the catalyst for one of the most tenderly depicted romances the cinema has produced for many a year. Bright Star, directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion, is the story of one of England’s most celebrated poets, the aforementioned Keats (Ben Whitshaw), and his love affair with fashion student Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). After a chance meeting at the home of Keats long-time benefactor, companion and fellow poet Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), Fanny has her siblings track down a copy of Endymion, which isn’t hard as the local bookstore in Hammersmith hasn’t sold a single copy (a sly nod to just how unappreciated Keats was in his own lifetime), and though she doesn’t understand or care for much of it, the simple elegance of that one passage leaves her captivated by him. After a distressing visit to his dying younger brother Fanny is soon making frequent trips to their home as Keats begins to teach her poetry, much to the chagrin of Brown who views her as nothing more than an idle distraction. Their courtship will seem almost alien to modern audiences; being a romance defined by handholding and longing looks, but it is impossible not to be swept up in the unstoppable momentum of their relationship. That a love story set in 1818 can feel so compelling, so contemporary, and so real is arguably this extraordinary films greatest achievement.
With it’s period costumes and elegant settings Bright Star can’t help but evoke the various cinematic adaptations of Jane Austen, but with no disrespect to those films Campion has set her sights on something far grander and profound. In various scenes she seems as enthralled by the natural world as Keats was, and in these gorgeous frames of butterflies and blue flowers (in one stunning shot Keats fashions himself a bed in the leaves of a tree) the film achieves a lyrical quality reminiscent of the great Terence Malick. Furthermore, many significant scenes close with an elegant fade to black, and by punctuating it in such a manner Campion gives the film a flow and sense of structure as poetic as anything Keats ever committed to paper. Her film is in itself a ballad, and one can only imagine how hard a sell it must have been to convince a studio to produce something so meditative in this age of the multiplex. For all the obvious gifts of Campion and her remarkable cinematographer Greig Fraser, any film as emotionally-involving as this lives and dies on the strength of its performances, and it is the combined talents of Cornish, Whitshaw and Schneider who elevate Bright Star to the levels of the exceptional.
It would be easy for the character of Keats to fall into the realm of cliché, love-struck poet that he is, and on paper many scenes would appear that way (after Brown sends Fanny a valentine a distressed Keats is found pacing outside her house in the rain) but Whitshaw plays him with a delicacy that prevents any possibility of truism. Schneider, after his scene-stealing turn in The Assassination of Jesse James, is exceptional once again as the embittered Brown; desperate to elevate his friend to the status and recognition he deserves, but haunted by his own lack of ability. His charisma provides much of the comic relief in a movie that contains many harrowing moments, yet he is also responsible for perhaps the most moving sequence within. The plaudits, and hopefully the awards come the New Year, really belong to Abbie Cornish though. She plays Fanny with a fearlessness and intensity that is truly exceptional. The range of emotions she displays, sometimes within the same scene (one of my favourite moments was a beautifully edited sequence where Keats goes to London and a distraught Fanny retires to bed to await his correspondence. The responses his letters provoke vary from breathless young love in full bloom to near suicidal grief caused by one particularly brief correspondence) is awe-inspiring. It is impossible to underestimate the impact of Bright Star; a film that you will want to savour until literally the very last second as Whitshaw flawlessly recites Ode to a Nightingale over the end credits. A thing of beauty is a joy forever indeed.
Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider,
Runtime: 119 Minutes