Rating: 1.5 out of 5
The protagonist of Jane Campion's previous film, In the Cut (2003), was a feisty New York-based student (Meg Ryan) with an interest in colloquial language: pungent slang, wayward metaphors, and provocative jargon.
Language was a function of lust, and the film explored the raw and primal elements of human relationships in its explicit depiction of sex.
In Bright Star, the New Zealand arthouse director looks at the exact same themes, but from a different angle.
This time her heroine is a feisty Englishwoman with an interest in poetic language, specifically in the verses and tropes of Romantic poetry.
Language is not a function of lust, but an instrument of love—love that is so lofty it often seems to transcend sex and physical passion.
The key characters in this unusual biopic are Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the nineteenth century Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), and Keats’ best friend and amanuensis, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider, delivering a credible Scottish brogue).
The year is 1818. Keats is an artist whose star is about to be extinguished at its height. His poems are admired, but his income is laughably non-existent. He wants to marry the love of his life, Brawne, but simply cannot afford to do so. News of the couple’s engagement is met with frowns and derision.
Campion depicts these tensions in iconoclastic fashion; she works against, rather than with, the passion of Keat’s verses and the grandeur of his feelings and thoughts.
Her scenes are decidedly pedestrian: there is little dancing at a dinner party; conversations over meals are prosaic; the lovers’ excursions into the woods are muted.
We see Brawne and Keats standing in fields of lavender or lying in dim, musty rooms. Their recitals of Keats’ poetry are heartfelt, but their physical chemistry is more restrained than repressed.
Campion keeps the camera static; her scenes are photographic rather than filmic. This is striking. You can’t help but admire the persistence of Campion’s vision, but the effect of that vision is dull.
Bright Star undermines its tragic premise of young love and young talent prematurely extinguished. The film – like Brawne’s and Keat’s love affair – is earnest, learned, but finally underwhelming.
About Ken Kwek
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and the forthcoming Kidnapper (2010).