Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review - Bright Star

A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and Jane Campion's Bright Star is indeed a beautiful piece of filmmaking. With this touching romantic drama about the doomed love between John Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), Campion has found a number of ways to utilise a visual language that is as ravishing as the poet's words. In the opening shot of Fanny's needle being pushed through fabric, the director immediately establishes a mood of intimate sensuality, and some later scenes – such as Fanny's room being filled with butterflies, or a shot of her falling to her knees in a field of blue flowers – are intoxicating. The most gratifying thing about Bright Star, however, is the respect Campion pays to Keats' poetry, making it an essential part of her script. This isn't one of those literary biopics like Iris (from which you wouldn't have a clue that Iris Murdoch was a great novelist), as the director builds much of Bright Star around her subject's romantic verse.

It is Keats' poetry that initially piques the interest of his neighbour Fanny Brawne. She buys a copy of his critically derided Endymion, and tells the author bluntly that the famous opening of the poem was impressive, even if the rest was not. They are a well-matched pair; Keats appreciates Fanny's wit and spirit, and the way she stands up to his rude best friend Mr Brown (Paul Schneider), who makes frequent digs at her flirtatious nature and obsession with finery. The casting is Schneider is this part is a hugely imaginative coup on Campion's part. His teasing and wryly self-amused manner is so stylishly executed by the actor, it's easy to forgive the occasional slippage of his Scottish brogue. Brown proves to be a crucial figure in Campion's film, capable of shaking things up and injecting a note of humour into things when the picture slips into an occasional lull.

As impressive as Campion's direction so often is, Bright Star does feel a little stuffy at times. This is a conventional period romance at heart, with Fanny and John's yearning to be together denied by both the social strictures of the time – his impoverished state stands in the way of their marriage – and by the poet's premature death. The two leads bring enormous heart and vitality to their relationship, however. Whishaw's rendition of Keats is appealing and witty, if a little drab, but he has genuine chemistry with Cornish, who delivers an astonishing performance as Fanny Brawne. As the latest in the long line of Campion's strong female figures, Cornish shines as the intelligent and independent Fanny, capturing the all-consuming passion and ultimate pain of her love for Keats. It's a marvellous performance.

Her performance gets even stronger as the film progresses, and the inevitable fate of the severely ill Keats gradually becomes clear. The sense of impending death weighs heavily on Bright Star's heroine, and eventually it becomes something of a burden for the film itself to bear. There comes a period towards the end where the film falls into a state of stasis, with everyone seemingly standing around waiting for the poet to die. Some of the life drains out of the picture at this point, but Campion rallies magnificently at the climax, depicting the impact of Keats' passing as a hammer blow. Cornish's portrayal of Fanny Brawne's crippling grief is lacerating, and everything in the film from this point onwards – up to and including the superb closing credits – is sublime.