The lasting impact of first love is the subject of Jane Campion's Bright Star, a Palme d'or-nominated film that is at once about, and not merely about, the brilliance of the Romantic poet John Keats. Tossing the usual biopic formula, Campion opts not to retell Keats' entire life, focusing instead on the brief lifespan of his romantic courtship with a young woman named Fanny Brawne in 19th century London -- a relationship that, Campion argues, awakened love in Keats, and in turn, inspired his genius.
As such, what unfolds is less a by-the-numbers examination of the artist, who died a pauper at the age of 25 before any of his poetry was truly appreciated, and more a tribute to the power of the well-documented love that Keats and Brawne shared, partly through letters.
When they first meet, Keats (played marvelously by British actor Ben Whishaw) is a struggling poet with no money to his name. He has a sick and dying brother and no marriage prospects, but he's beloved among a circle of London artist types who look out for him here and there, including fellow poet Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider). Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), on the other hand, is the eldest daughter of the family next door. A fashionista of sorts, Fanny spends her days sewing and designing her own clothes, and has no interest in things like poetry – that is, until she becomes fascinated with Keats.
The curiosity is mutual. Through a series of tentative starts and stops, Fanny and John grow close; she asks him to teach her to read poetry, and all of the complicated thinking that it requires. He admires her warmth and spunk. Opposites attract, much to the chagrin of Brown, who would much prefer Keats' attentions remain on his work. Their romance unfolds beautifully, and save a few kisses, chastely, for Keats is haunted by his financial inability to marry Brawne. She, to her credit, doesn't care. Their first touches are heavy with anticipation; their last goodbyes are painfully aware.
Campion captures all of this in a remarkable understated fashion. Like the artists of the Romantic period, she favors naturalism, in both form and emotion. Natural light permeates the film, echoing Keats' desire to be surrounded by the natural world, to free himself spiritually so that his pen may be a vessel. Campion conceivably adopted this method, resulting in a film that feels like a living thing, even if its elements are fairly restrained.
That vibrancy extends to the performances in Bright Star. Ironically, it's Keats' character, the more introspective of the couple, that brings out the more marked performance in Whishaw, while Cornish, whose Brawne was most definitely the more outspoken, displays a real ability to command the screen even in many dialogue-free, reflective scenes. (On top of this, Cornish is given a very natural look that allows her beauty to shine and keeps in line with the film's avoidance of the glamorous.) Schneider, as Keats' best friend and protector, gives a rascally likeability to Brown, even when he's purposefully keeping the ailing Keats away from the woman he loves, if even for his own good. Every compelling male friendship has an element of bromance to it, and the love between Brown and Keats is no exception.
Moments of beauty stand out. Fanny, composed blissfully in bed, muses in silence while an open window blows in invisible gusts of air, as gentle and forceful as a lover's touch. Later, when butterflies remind her of Keats, she enlists her siblings to catch hundreds of them in the flower meadows and then fills her room with delicate reminders of her love.
More powerful still is a scene in which the two lovers find themselves in adjoining rooms of the house and tentatively tap the wall that divides them, each finding reassurance in the other's knock. And an early confrontation between Keats, Brawne, and Brown builds emotion so palpable that you recognize it when it hits you as heartsickness of the most violent, naïve kind.
The film's title is taken from the sonnet "Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art," a poem about an eternal love that Keats wrote for and about Brawne upon their engagement in 1819, two years before his death. But in presenting Keats as much in Brawne's eyes as she in his – we watch Fanny's growing interest in John, we wait with her for his letters, we share in her anguish when all seems lost -- Campion suggests that he was her "bright star" as well. It's a fitting reminder that great inspiration comes of great love -- the kind that burns brightly, for however long, at both ends.