What do you say about a 25-year-old British poet who died? If you’re Jane Campion and the poet is John Keats, you can go with thelove letters Keats (Ben Whishaw) wrote to Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) before consumption ended his life in Italy in 1821. But Campion, in films as diverse as The Piano and In the Cut, has always been intrigued by the space that time, class and culture puts between lovers and the feelings they can’t articulate. And so Bright Star is the New Zealand writer-director’s raw, sensual attempt to render Keats as experienced by a young girl who couldn’t understand the genius of his verse.
It workslike a charm. The rigidity of life in Hampstead, where Fanny and her family live next door to the penniless Keats and his mentor, Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider), only amps the intensity of the emotions thwarted by their formal dress and society’s rules. Sex? There isn’t any between Keats and Fanny. Only Brown’s go at a housemaid brings a carnal intrusion. For Campion, it’s nature that represents the swoons and storms of this unrequited romance. The film, shot by the gifted Greig Fraser, is a thing of beauty to match the snippets of Keats we hear on the soundtrack. But the film would remain a concept without the right actors to give it flesh and blood. Whishaw lets us into Keats’ secret, anguished heart. And Cornish is glorious, making Fanny a force of womanhood able to take on Brown (Schneider is a sharply witty irritant) when he tries to break the connection between her and her beloved. Cornish catches the fertile mind that Fanny poignantly tries to nurture, knowing she’ll grow closer to Keats by deciphering the words that possess him. A literate, lyrical love story in the age of Hollywood crass. I must be dreaming.