Bright Star (UK/Australia/France 2009)

Abbie Cornish as Fanny and Ben Whishaw as John Keats

I hope that we are going to get some discussion of Jane Campion’s film about Fanny Brawne and John Keats. I’ve had an entertaining trawl through some of the IMDB comments and though the majority are well behind the film, there is a significant minority in total denial of the film’s artistry. My view is that it is an outstanding achievement in every department and one of the best films of the year. I did feel, immediately after leaving the cinema, that there was something unsatisfactory about the narrative, but when I looked back at the trailers I realised that I’d enjoyed every aspect of the film.

It may be that I’m not the target audience for the film, even though I admire Campion’s work. It’s certainly true that I know little about Keats, never having studied the Romantic poets as such and that I probably knew more about his short biography than about the poems he wrote, so I wasn’t engaged by a fascination with his ‘artistic muse’. (But if you know the poems, you will find plenty of references – the film is a romance though and it doesn’t attempt to explore the writing of the poems as such.) But then, the title of the film is ‘Bright Star’, named after a poem Keats dedicated to Fanny. Perhaps the narrative is really Fanny’s. She starts and ends the film and I thought that Abbie Cornish headed the cast on the print I saw (IMDB lists Ben Whishaw as Keats first). It would make more sense for Campion to focus on Fanny – in all of her films I think it is the relationship between director and leading female actor that is the central point of the production.

Abbie Cornish is terrific. Attractive, intelligent, assertive yet vulnerable, inventive and creative, she ought to be highly sought after by any man – even in the socially stratified society of Regency London. My only slight hesitation is that she looks so wonderfully healthy and vital – especially next to a consumptive Keats. If getting your man depended on dancing all night and arm-wrestling your competitors I suspect that Abbie’s Fanny would win every time. Fanny is in many ways a modern woman struggling to fulfil her dreams in a hierarchical society.

My hesitancy is, I think, simply the perennial problem with biopics. If you know anything about Keats you know the resolution of the narrative and, even if you are enjoying the film, there is the possibility that you are already wanting the story to end. It’s difficult to sustain a romance narrative, even a doomed one when the ending is known. Perhaps it would have worked better for me if there had been more melodrama? Fanny has one emotion wrenching scene and I could have taken more of that.

However, Campion does an excellent job on all counts constructing her take on the story, avoiding all the pitfalls of the costume drama (i.e. the BBC serial style), creating interesting characters and conjuring fine performances from supporting players. Mention must be made of the cat – the best film cat for a long time – and of the butterfly wrangler. The locations, set dressing, costumes and lighting cinematography make this one of the most beautiful films around – not the ‘chocolate box’ beauty of the conventional classic serial but a real evocation of rural Hampstead before the spread of London into the suburbs and the darkening of British cities with industrial revolution – fitting really for the Romantic Poets who raised the standard for passion and nature against the onslaught of science and industry. Still, science did bring the antibiotics that might have saved Keats!

Here is the US trailer demonstrating the film’s strengths.

One comment

  1. keith1942

    Yes, I was impressed with the film, and especially the female lead. As a biopic of a poet it is well above average, and it is also above average as a romatic drama.
    I thought Campion and her colleagues handled the poetry pretty well. though there were one or two occasions that were a little naff.
    As for knowing the end, that did not bother me too much. It was intriguing to watch the development of the relationship.


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