Restraint, artistic and emotional, is the great strength of Bright Star.
The film, based on the romance between English poet John Keats and his neighbor Fanny Brawne, is distinguished by superb ensemble acting, intelligent writing, and stunning design. But its best quality is the tact with which it tells the tragic story. In lesser hands this might have been a staid museum piece or a fulsome Romeo and Juliet knockoff. Director Jane Campion (The Piano) makes it a moving study of yearning and loss, all the more passionate because it avoids cliched emotional payoffs.
Set around 1818, the film unfolds in two adjacent houses. In one lives the prosperous Brawne family, where Fanny (Abbie Cornish) does elegant needlework. Next door, poet Charles Brown and his young, penniless writing partner Keats (Ben Whishaw) scribble away in rented rooms. The spirited girl pays a social call on the newcomers and is intrigued by Keats. He has a sensitive soul, dignity, and talent but no money to marry. Beautiful words come to him as naturally as wildflowers to a field.
Fanny's circle clucks over his unsuitable station in life, but the girl is feisty enough to follow her heart. Keats draws inspiration from Fanny; his delicate health improves when she is around.
The film is wise about the evolution of affection between two characters with not much more than youth in common. Fanny reads Keats' poetry “to see if he's an idiot,” but can't puzzle out its subtleties. Keats is mystified by her announcement that her ball gown boasts the only triple-tiered mushroom collar in all of Hampstead.
Still, the attraction is undeniable. She stitches him a gorgeous pillow slip; he instructs her in poetry. He sees beyond her beautiful wrappings, and she recognizes a creative kindred spirit. At Christmas dinner, Keats takes Fanny's hand and they are spiritually betrothed, despite the misgivings of Fanny's widowed mother and their friends.
At the film's heart is the conflict between human desire and society's moral codes. The staid attitudes of the older generation contrast with the emotional impulses of the young Romantic generation. Still, Keats respects the conventions that prevent a poor poet from marrying a young woman of means.
True to the mores and morality of the day, the lovers sublimate their passion into longing and passionate correspondence. The film delights in its literary heritage, using quotations from Keats' work throughout, including passages from the poignant letters he wrote to Fanny when they were apart.
Cinematographer Greig Fraser creates a nostalgic fantasy world of vibrant summer gardens, handsome cottages, snowscapes, and faces bathed in the skim-milk light of Vermeer portraits. He's aided by Campion's vivid visual imagination. Fanny keeps the spirit of their doomed love around her by filling her bedroom with butterflies. Could there be a more gorgeous image of fragile beauty?
It's that sort of touch that makes Bright Star more than a period piece.