The lovely Bright Star, which details the romance between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne in the waning years of Keats’ short life, is, as one might expect, about love in the face of poverty and one’s yearning creativity. The two lovers, played by Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish, meet-cute on a sunny day in 1818 Hampstead and immediately take to one another after she gives him fashion tips. In the early 19th century, telling someone that they’d look better in blue velvet was about as good as pick-up lines got.
Before she even meets Keats, however, Ms. Brawne meets his best friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) and speaks with a harsh tongue about her art — she designs and makes clothing — and it is here where the film’s other subject arises. The romance that the film, directed by Jane Campion, chronicles so tenderly is as much between a young man and woman as it is about an artist and their form of expression. Brown, who will spend the rest of the film finding new ways to dismiss Brawne professionally and personally, makes fun of the young designer’s colorful garments, but she is quick to point out that, unlike his, her work makes money.
Despite this sucker punch to Brown’s ego, the film has very little to say about the battle between art and commerce, but that isn’t to say that money doesn’t have its hand in this fatalistic love story. Penniless and far from his love, Keats died in Italy at the age of 25, but his death is a minor part of Campion’s work. As much as its love story, Bright Star lovingly details the creative processes of both Keats and Brawne, but it also exudes the passion of their work through its own expressive aesthetic. Visually, the film alternates between the ponderous browns of Keats’ study and the lush colors of the gardens and forests where Brawne cavorts with her adorable younger sister Toonts (Edie Martin). As expected, the exploration of Brawne’s art lends a far more visual element to the picture and in a way, Campion has delivered a smart, visual dialectic on the ease of showing certain creative processes and the impossibility of documenting others.
But no flower nor dress nor moment of intense brooding in Bright Star is framed and attended to as brilliantly as Cornish, and this is certainly the best work the young, intelligent actress has done so far. Campion often catches her in hazy light, bringing out her simple, unassuming beauty, but at certain moments — lying in a room full of butterflies, playing a game with Toonts — both actress and director capture the vitality and grace of being young and in love. And though Whishaw’s angular physicality makes for a suitable Keats, it is in fact Paul Schneider’s Irish-accented scalawag that proves the most worthy match for the actress. Schneider has been effective playing amiable, abandoned men (All the Real Girls, Away We Go) but he has never fully realized the snide ferocity he teased at in The Assassination of Jesse James. Under Campion’s direction, he finally lets loose all the devils and delivers a great performance as a true rascal who vies for Keats’ attention far more outlandishly than Brawne does.
It is near the end that Brown confesses his deep love for Keats to Brawne, but he has already knocked up the house maid and thus detached himself further from his art. The Keats in Bright Star is a man for whom to be away from his love is to be away from the very essence of his art, something that a reading of actual correspondence from Keats might disprove. But for Campion, the passions that ran between Keats and Brawne were the sort that only myth could do justice to.