I confess, 'Bright Star' made me utterly lovesick, and it managed to do so without boldly dotting its tragic moments. Its whispers, hints, and suggestions will leave you floating. Jane Campion's film is a breathtaking experience, graced with the painterly touches of cinematographer Greig Fraser, whose delicate textures and lyrical vitality lends a freedom to Campion's storytelling.
Poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) spent the last three years of his life locked in a lingering embrace with his neighbor, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). The perpetually poor, aloof, and self-deprecating Keats takes up residence in the outskirts of London with fellow poet Charles Armitage Brown. One half of the house is occupied by the Dilkes family, who introduce the young scribe to Miss Brawne. A flirtation blossoms between the two, composed of awkward glances, subtle gestures, gentle musings, and shared dreams.
[spoilers ahead, unless you know how the Keats/Brawne relationship ends]
We follow their romance largely through the letters they shared while Keats traveled abroad. Brawne becomes a well of inspiration for the poet, who creates some of his best-known works while with his lady love, including the sonnet the film is named after, 'Bright Star.' Their courtship doesn't end with the dream it began and remained unconsummated (Keats was too poor -- and eventually too ill -- to marry Brawne), as the pangs of Campion's parting image -- Brawne in mourning garb haunting the woods and reciting the poem written for her -- won't let you forget.
Like one of Brawne's garments, 'Bright Star' stitches together the structure of design and the dreaminess of Keats' poetry to bring the Romantic's tender words to life. It's a balance similar to the way Brawne biographer Joanna Richardson describes Keats' poem, 'Endymion:' " ... the very symbol of beauty, the reconciliation between real life and his poetic quest." Campion's mantra was to "find the images in the poetry." The director and cinematographer assembled their intimate and emotional portrait, relying on the light and air of their "interior/exterior studio" to do so.
Any given frame from 'Bright Star' could be an Impressionist painting or a watercolor brought to life. This week's image of Brawne reclining in bed, luxuriating in the warmth of her romance with Keats is no different. The whispering air and soft light from the window are as palpable as the emotions felt during this scene. The gorgeous, natural lighting for the interior scenes were shot as organically as the passing weather. Fraser explains, "At the start of a take, we had someone watching the sky, and they'd say, 'We've got about a minute of clouds.' So we'd go for it, and then, in the middle of the take, the sun would come out and light the whole room."
Fraser did his homework, studying the rhythm, repetition, and symbolism of Keats' words to compose the movie's visual feel. "Understanding Keats' poetry was like learning how to read again. I tried to come to a good understanding of not only what was being said, but also the colors those words conjured up and what those combinations of words were saying to me. I read the script, studied some of Keats' poetry, read more about him and then read the script again, and it felt really fulsome."
Fulsome perhaps, but Fraser and Campion's aesthetic translation of Keats work is subtle, drifting over you like the air from Brawne's bedroom window.