"Beautiful and haunting."
Bright Star is neither a peppy rom-com nor a weepy romance that woos ostentatiously with exotic locales, heart-thumping danger, lusty lovemaking, or choreographed kookiness. Nor does director/writer Jane Campion's love story tug at heartstrings with moodiness (unlike Campion's The Piano) and melodrama. Instead, it's a courtship that subtly progresses from sensually lovely and charming to achingly beautiful and haunting.
Chronicling the first love of 19th-century poet John Keats and girl next door Fanny Brawne (he dedicated his poem "Bright Star" to her), it's budding and grand, despite being cultivated in a tiny Hampstead cottage. It's the simple exchanges that are spellbinding -- secretive raps against the wall that separates Keats' (played by Ben Whishaw) and Brawne's (Abbie Cornish) bedrooms -- and ordinary settings, and even silences, are all infused with effervescent emotion. Fanny reading Keats' poems in a meadow of blue flowers and butterflies is quietly spectacular. Even the color of their costumes -- Keats in a teal waistcoat, Fanny (who designs her own clothes) in a shocking pink ensemble -- is charged. Whether star-crossed anguish or first-love euphoria, Fanny and John's feelings are somehow so palpable and pervasive few words are required to express them. This is owed, of course, in large part to Cornish's openhearted, youthful exuberance as the witty seamstress who hasn't studied much poetry before her Keats-crush cram session, and Whishaw's tender thoughtfulness -- he hits the romantic poet nail on the head. Alas, or maybe fortunately, their love is a bright star that burns with a spiritual fire that never leads to a physical bliss (Keats has neither the health nor finances to properly wed Fanny, and both resist the urge to violate the moral code of the day).
But what of Keats' poetry? His immortal words are so sparingly and flawlessly woven into the film at moments you might easily forget that Bright Star's Mr. Keats is a poet ... until it becomes clear the poetry is in everything -- every detail of the film. Campion and cast have somehow accomplished a rare and breathtaking thing: they have captured Keats' spirit by translating verbal to visual poetry, producing a screen poem about a poet's first love, a bright star that burns long after both Keats and Brawne's earthly existences have ceased, and whose twinkle will surely draw the attention of the Academy next Oscar season.