Jane Campion's ravishing "Bright Star" is an ode to poetry — and love. It stars Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish as John Keats and his young love Fanny Brawne. A review by Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.
“Don’t come back,” a flame-haired little girl says sternly to a withered leaf. “There is no autumn around here.”
Jane Campion’s beautiful “Bright Star” is about a relationship that reached autumn far too soon; a story of young love’s bright burning and too-quick end. Set in the London suburb of Hampstead, beginning in 1818, it focuses on the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), who at 23 fell in love with his 18-year-old neighbor, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
Their relationship had little future: He was poor and in ill health; her mother wished her to make a better match.
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And yet, documented in a remarkable series of surviving love letters, these two found a way to make time stand still. As he wrote in the poem that gave this film its title, she was steadfast and unchangeable; he lived to hear her “tender-taken breath.”
They lived in adjoining houses (she with her mother and young siblings, he with a friend) for much of the time until 1820, when Keats, suffering from tuberculosis, traveled to Italy for the warmer air. He and Fanny never met again.
Campion, triumphantly back in the emotional realm of “The Piano,” fills “Bright Star” with poetry (right through the end credits, accompanied not by music but by Whishaw’s soulful reading of “Ode to a Nightingale”), both in words and images.
In one paradisiacally lovely shot, Fanny’s bedroom is transformed into a butterfly garden; in another, she lies on her bed as a wind makes the sheer curtain billow above her, as if she’s overcome by the force of something bigger.
And as Fanny, Keats and his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) walk on Hampstead Heath, the camera pulls back and they become distant figures on the vast brown field, dwarfed by nature.
Cornish and Whishaw, two little-known actors about to become much better known, give ardent performances as the young lovers engulfed in the all-encompassing nature of a first true passion. And while giving us a detailed portrait of early-19th-century life — it’s striking how little Fanny has to do, other than stitch and desultorily play with her brother and sister — Campion makes the film remarkably intimate in its dusky candlelight, pulling us into the world Keats and Fanny create.
They change before our eyes (these are, we remember, very young people, with the explosive emotions that come with youth), with Cornish in particular displaying a haunting, quiet seriousness later in the film, as if love is crushing her.
“Bright Star” is a gentle, quiet film; little happens, but we find immense pleasure in the movements of a cat, the innocence of a small girl (lovely Edie Martin, who plays Fanny’s little sister), the resolute path of a needle through an elaborate garment, the way that poetry can briefly transport us to a lovelier place.
“Let’s pretend I will return in the spring,” says a pale Keats to Fanny, before his departure for Italy; just try not to be moved.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org