"Bright Star", de Jane Campion (Variety, Screen)

By Todd McCarthy

A Pathe, Screen Australia, BBC Films and the UK Film Council presentation in association with the New South Wales Film and Television Office and Hopscotch International of a Jan Chapman production in association with Carole Hewitt. (Internationa sales: Pathe International, London.) Produced by Chapman, Hewitt. Executive producers, Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken, Christine Langan, David M. Thompson. Directed, written by Jane Campion, with research from the biography "Keats" by Andrew Motion.

Fanny Brawne - Abbie Cornish
John Keats - Ben Wishaw
Mr. Brown - Paul Schneider
Mrs. Brawne - Kerry Fox
Toots - Edie Martin
Samuel - Thomas Brodie-Sangster
Maria Dilke - Claudie Blakley
Charles Dilke - Gerard Monaco
Abigail - Antonia Campbell-Hughes

The Jane Campion embraced by 1990s arthouse audiences but who's been missing of late makes an impressive return with "Bright Star." Breaking through any period piece mustiness with piercing insight into the emotions and behavior of her characters, the writer-director examines the final years in the short life of 19th century romantic poet John Keats through the eyes of his beloved, Fanny Brawne, played by Abbie Cornish in an outstanding performance. Beautifully made film possesses solid appeal for specialized auds in most markets, including the U.S., where it will be released by Bob Berney's and Bill Pohlad's as-yet unnamed new distribution company, although its poetic orientation and dramatic restraint will likely stand in the way of wider acceptance.

Keats died in 1821 at age 25, and his final years were marked by an incredible burst of creativity as well as by his one great romance, which inspired some extraordinary love letters. By concentrating on the latter, as experienced by Fanny, Campion gives rather short shrift to the former, leaving the viewer with a vivid picture of the social constraints on grand passion and romantic fulfillment in England at the time. While avoiding the typical biopic template, the film nonetheless honors the facts of the central relationship, which means that some typical, central audiences expectations concerning emotional payoff aren't met.

Most of the action is confined to two neighboring houses in Hampstead Village, North London, beginning in 1818. Living in one is the Brawne family, a fatherless brood consisting of matriarch Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox), 18-year-old daughter Fanny (Cornish), teenager Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and little sprite Toots (Edie Martin), while the bearded, boorish Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider) and Keats (Ben Wishaw) occupy the other.

While unobtrusively laying in the character dynamics--Brown, highly protective of his Keats, is pointedly rude to Fanny and does all he can to keep her away from his friend, whom he tirelessly helps with his work--Campion devotes special attention to the physical and aural aspects of this little middle-class corner of British society, thereby highlighting the sensual qualities of life that particularly captivated Keats himself. The opening shots convey the act of sewing --Fanny's frequent activity -- with unsurpassed intimacy, a performance by a small male chorus at a domestic party carries oddly moving force, and other scenes pointedly focus upon pastimes that quiver with quasi-sexual sublimation, including dancing, sport, butterfly collecting and hunting for the most fragrant flowers.

Then there is the poetry, which brings home the realization of how few films have ever dealt with poets and their work. Effectively establishing herself as an onscreen proxy for most viewers, Fanny early on confesses to Keats that, "Poems are a strain to work out," but then volunteers to take lessons in poetry appreciation, which allows Keats to recommend an emotional, impressionistic reaction rather than an intellectual one. Writing her screenplay in a way that plainly speaks of another era and yet comes across as natural and unaffected, Campion works in snippets of Keats' work at relevant moments, even under the end credits.

Although he makes a point of articulating his perplexed attitude about women, the slim, dreamily attractive Keats is clearly captivated by Fanny, who stands out by virtue of the direct gaze with which she meets all people and predicaments. All the same, she can scarcely throw off the constraints of family expectations and social norms, just as Keats feels unable and even unqualified to pursue a proper courtship with Fanny due to his poverty and lack of prospects.

For these and other reasons, which initially include the fatal (and foreshadowing) illness of Keats' brother Tom and persistently involve Brown's interference and the poet's periodic absences, the great romance blossoms very slowly. Even at its height, it is physically expressed only by gentle kissing and caressing; actual consummation is not in the cards, and Campion stringently avoids even so much as a grand clinch or music-swelled embrace, permitting the emotions to be expressed largely through letters and verse.

Keats, who feels himself "dissolving" in his love for Fanny, also begins to dissipate physically from tuberculosis. Advised to move to a warmer climate, he decamps for Italy, where he succumbs. Rightly judging that, like the act of writing, endless coughing up blood does not make for very edifying viewing, Campion conveys the climactic information as Fanny learns it, to palpably convulsive effect.

With brown hair pulled tightly back and a tad more filled out than before, Cornish is made to look more plain than she actually is, which better emphasizes the importance of Fanny's character for Keats. The majority of her performance's success rests in her eyes, which are remarked upon by Brown for their amber hue and which, one senses, see and process so much. All of Campion's films center upon strong, complicated women, and Cornish's Fanny takes her place among the most memorable of them.

What's missing is an equally compelling sense of Keats' singular attributes. Everything one reads about the poet emphasizes his extreme sensitivity to nature and his almost swooning reaction to sensory stimuli. While these qualities are embedded in the filmmaking here, most particularly in the work of production and costume designer Janet Patterson and cinematographer Greig Fraser (who previously shot the shorts "The Water Diary" and "The Lady Bug" for Campion), they are not so evident in the writing of Keats' character or in the performance of Wishaw, which is appealing but not nearly as trenchant as that of his costar.

Schneider's oozing presence as Brown creates a constant sense of unease for Fanny, while Martin is entirely winning presence as Fanny's red-headed little sister. Mark Bradshaw's score reps a major plus.

Camera (Technicolor), Greig Fraser; editor, Alexandre de Franceschi; music, Mark Bradshaw; production, costume designer, Janet Patterson; supervising art director, David Hindle; art director, Christian Huband; set decorator, Charlotte Watts; sound (Dolby Digital), John Midgley; make-up and hair designer, Konnie Daniel; line producer, Emma Mager; assistant director, Mike Elliott; casting, Nina Gold. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 15, 2009. Running time: 119 MIN.


By Allan Hunter

Dir/scr. Jane Campion, UK/Australia. 2009. 119 mins

Sixteen years after The Piano, Jane Campion has found renewed artistic inspiration in a tragic romance to match the haunting intensity of that Palme D’Or winning feature.

Bright Star tells the story of the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne with a classical poise, exquisite craftsmanship and a piercing tenderness. It is Campion’s most fully realised, satisfying achievement in a long while and will be warmly embraced as a prestige item with awards potential. The measured pace and restrained emotional temperature of the piece could restrict the market to an older, more sophisticated arthouse audience but Bright Star should still shine as an irresistible quality attraction.

Taking her lead from the sensuality of Keats’ verses, Campion has created a film that revels in the beauty of the English countryside. Gorgeous camerawork from Greig Fraser sees the changing seasons reflected in glowing daffodil fields, meadows strewn with bluebells and snow-dusted winter woods. The central love affair is expressed through modest caresses, clasped hands and lingering glances rather than anything more explicit. It is a dreamy film to make the viewer swoon.

In the London of 1818, impecunious 23-year-old John Keats (Ben Whishaw) has devoted himself to a life of poetry, sharing quarters with his devoted friend Mr Brown (Paul Schneider). Keats becomes an object of fascination for his neighbour Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), an 18-year-old whose own creativity is expressed in the bold clothes she designs and creates by hand. He describes her as a minx but a relationship that begins in playful banter gradually deepens into something which will overwhelm them both. A meeting of minds blossoms into a union of hearts.

Bright Star deftly avoids the stilted, starchy quality often found in lesser period dramas. Characters appear comfortable in their clothes and settings, the dialogue flows easily from their lips and there is a quiet, everyday intimacy to the way events unfold. We are invited into this world rather than kept at arm’s length because nothing jars or seems out of place. The keen attention to detail is never obtrusive but instead creates a complete, credible universe. Understanding and respecting an age hidebound by propriety and the observance of social rituals lends an authenticity to the restraint that Keats and Fanny were obliged to observe in navigating their feelings. There is a sense in which it is easier to say nothing than try to express the torrent of love stirring between them.

Beautifully crafted in every department from the composure of the camerawork to the precision of the costume and production design, Bright Star is a film to savour. Campion ensures that its pictorial appeal is matched by an emotional engagement thanks to a universally fine cast. Bearing a distracting resemblance to Eric Cantona, Paul Schneider’s broad Scottish accent may seem laboured at times but he perfectly captures the belligerence and sarcasm of a man determined to protect his friend from a woman he judges to be an emotional gold-digger. His jealousy and disdain for this threatening interloper rings completely true.

Australian Abbie Cornish is also obliged to adopt an unfamiliar accent but passes that test with flying colours. She captures all the youthful impetuosity of the English Fanny and portrays her as a young woman trying to maintain control of a life torn apart by all the fresh emotions and new sensations that she is experiencing. It is a performance that should win her awards season consideration and emphatically underlines why she is one of the most highly regarded performers of her generation. Great expectations now also attend the performances of Ben Whishaw and he is equally impressive as John Keats making the poet an entirely human figure; unassuming, vulnerable and constantly engaged by the mysteries of life, love and the burdens of being human.

The integrity of all the performances, including Kerry Fox as Mrs Brawne and Edie Martin as Fanny’s younger sister Margaret, is indicative of the overall quality of a film that has an honesty of approach to the period and the emotional heart of a tragic story that proves to be immensely moving.

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