In Bright Star there exists a pervasive kind of sweetness that is as nourishing to the soul as it is refreshing to the senses.
In 2009’s Bright Star, the most recent theatrical effort from Jane Campion, there exists a pervasive kind of sweetness that is as nourishing to the soul as it is refreshing to the senses. More than any other modern filmmaker, Campion has a deft hand at staging a costume drama in such a way as to never once feel like the stuffy, run-of-the-mill period pieces that routinely compete for awards at the end of the year. She frames the tale of Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his relationship with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) not just as a love story, but as a love letter to romance, art, the passion we put into words and garments and one another. It is a beautiful film with an effervescent texture that serves both to dull the sting of its ultimate tragedy as well as make it more potent.
Though technically something of a biopic, Bright Star’s basic structure follows the form of the average romantic comedy, just more methodically paced and more emotionally raw. The meet-cute between Keats and Brawne is suitably adorable and all of the other necessary romance plot-element boxes are ticked off with ease, right down to the external force getting in the way of their courtship, in the form of Keats’ best friend and pseudo-romantic rival Charles Brown (Paul Schneider).
Keats, the reserved, sullen writer, and Brawne, the flirtatious, outgoing fashion aficionado, make for a charming pair. Campion pens their dialogue with care and buoyancy, capturing the bubbly nature of early attraction, its dessert-like confection and its queasy, underlying unease. At the same time, its 1818 setting firmly places the romance into her usual themes, exploring the transactional nature of courtship and marriage as the backdrop for this inconvenient romance. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film comes when Brawne’s mother must explain to her daughter why Keats seems to not be as interested in her as she is in him. Keats, a poor writer with no income prospects, knows that he cannot marry Brawne, so he doesn’t allow himself the luxury of reciprocal flirtation.
This being a love story, that changes through the course of the film, as Brown sends Brawne what he claims to be a joking valentine that forces Keats’ hand to reveal his true feelings. But even once the cat is out of the bag, their relationship is tumultuous, held apart by Keats’ financial standing, multiple bouts of long distance and, finally, Keats’ own illness.
Campion lenses their fleeting moments of bliss with such care and such lightness that when the hammer of fate drops and their ill-fated love is challenged, it’s a visually painful experience. There’s the whimsy of one sequence in which Keats and Brawne are walking behind Brawne’s little sister, freezing in place like statues anytime she turns around to look at them. Contrast that with later in the film, as Keats’ declining health must send him to the calmer climate of Italy and Brawne holds onto him, trying to capture the present moment in stillness—this time, not for playful reasons, but to try to stop the ravages of time.
This is a sumptuous romance, possibly because it is so chaste. Campion spends so much screen-time showing Brawne with her stitching and Keats with his pen, drawing a clear line between his poetry and her garments, the twin outlets of these artists, each overflowing with emotion and feeling in their own way. Perhaps that is why, in the absence of a physical sex scene, there’s such a stirring eroticism to the way they hold one another’s hands. It’s hard to think of another filmmaker who could imbue such an innocent gesture with such suggestive portent, but that is the crux of Bright Star, a sweet, beguiling film masking much deeper pathos.