Introduction

Bright Star

Bright Star
  • Country of production: Australia / UK
  • Year: 2009
  • Certificate: PG
  • Director: Jane Campion
  • Running time: 119 minutes
  • Official website: www.brightstar-movie.com
 

is the story of the love affair between Romantic poet John Keats (BEN WHISHAW) and Fanny Brawne (ABBIE CORNISH) in the two years before his death from tuberculosis at the age of 25 in 1821. Written and directed by JANE CAMPION (winner of an Oscar for The Piano), it has been described as ‘exquisite' by several critics and tipped for awards success.

Fanny was the girl next door as she and Keats lived in adjoining houses in Hampstead, which was then a village north of London. The film shows them navigating Keats's devoted friend Charles Brown's antagonism towards Fanny but being thwarted by Keats's lack of funds to marry her as well as by his illness. Their story ‘tenderly rips your heart to shreds' (James Christopher, The Times). A tour-de-force display of emotion from Cornish in the denouement is especially moving.

The intensity of their liaison elicited some of Keats's greatest work, including the poem that gives the film its title. His poetry is approached from Fanny's perspective. Depicted as an independent-minded and forthright young woman, she likes fashion and dancing but is initially not interested in poetry. As such many viewers will relate to her viewpoint. She takes Keats's advice to understand poetry not by "working it out" but by assimilating it through her senses. The way Campion seamlessly stitches in pieces of Keats' work is one of the film's achievements. Most viewers sit through the end credits just to listen to Whishaw's reading of Ode to a Nightingale.

The outstanding cinematography revels in the beauty of the English countryside and is the visual corollary of Keats's verbal beauty. Campion has made ‘a dreamy film to make the viewer swoon' (Allan Hunter, Screen International), as befits the sensuality of Keats's verses. A shot of Fanny in a bluebell meadow ‘is so enthralling it beggars description' (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times). 

Though the film is true to the story's major events, Campion invented incident and dialogue where she needed to flesh out the story between the known facts. She was moved to write the screenplay after reading Andrew Motion's 1997 biography of Keats and Motion advised on the film. Incidentally his son appears in the film as the soldier who is seen waiting for Fanny to dance with him. 

Re-view

Bright Star

A MOVING MUSING STORY

‘This heartfelt film has a nobility of its own; it draws you irresistibly into its world.'

(PETER BRADSHAW, THE GUARDIAN)

Bright Star is not a "corseted" period piece. It ‘deftly avoids the stilted, starched 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.'(Allan Hunter, Screen International)

It is a beautiful film, yet appears natural and unaffected, with many scenes from ordinary life. All aspects of production are skilfully crafted to achieve the film's unfussy feel, but the cinematography of Greig Fraser stands out. He has shot the film ‘with breathtaking simplicity of tone and style' (Kate Stables, Sight & Sound), employing calm compositions full of natural light and shadows.

The effect is to ‘make the dailiness of distant lives vivid and convincing' (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times) and to appear to ‘film history in the present tense' (AO Scott, The New York Times).

Restrained take on constraint

Bright Star is also not a typical biopic with that genre's ‘accompanying heavy narrative machinery' (Dave Calhoun, Time Out). By telling the story through the eyes of the less well known Fanny Brawne and not attempting to persuade us of Keats's talent or worthiness, Jane Campion is able to develop the characters and capture the emotional intensity of the relationship itself. 

Telling the story with a light touch and admirable restraint, Campion allows us to see the extent to which social mores constrain the couple. Fanny calls him "Mr Keats" throughout and the romance blossoms slowly, impeded by Keats's poor marriage prospects. Even at its height, it is physically expressed only by gentle kissing and caressing, and remains unconsummated. Emotions are expressed largely through letters and verse. They are reflected in images such as trapped butterflies and a breeze blowing through a curtain to Fanny lying blissfully on her bed. The musical score is suitably elegant.

This means that what actions there are carry greater significance. When the couple exchange stanzas of La Belle Dame Sans Merci the scene ‘crackles with verbal caresses' (Kate Stables, Sight & Sound).

The leading actors both ‘blend charisma and vulnerability' (Kate Stables, Sight & Sound). Playing Fanny as a light-hearted "minx", yet simultaneously grounded and forthright, required from Abbie Cornish ‘a mixture of unguardedness and self-control matched by few actresses of any age or nationality. She's as good as Kate Winslet, which is about as good as it's possible to be' (AO Scott, The New York Times). Her performance was also compared to Nicole Kidman for ‘the way she can never quite hide the emotions raging behind her eyes' (James Christopher, The Times).

As Keats, Ben Whishaw ‘certainly looks the part: pale, intense and faintly wasted,' said David Gritten in The Daily Telegraph. ‘Yet with a generous wit and affable disposition, he makes the poet more rounded than a one-dimensional Romantic stereotype.' He encapsulates a young man who is sincere and remarkable. While his Keats struggles to understand his feelings for Fanny, he ‘makes the composition of Ode to a Nightingale seem as relaxed and artless as conversation' (Kate Stables, Sight & Sound).

Brown eyes Brawne

By way of contrast, Charles Brown is far less sensitive. He makes the poets resemble not so much delicate aesthetes as the 19th-century equivalent of rock musicians. His jealous protection of Keats from involvement with Brawne resembles that of a band member's wariness of the influence of another's wife or girlfriend.

The film shows how him undermining Fanny by flirting with her himself in an attempt to prove to Keats that she was not worthy of his attentions.

Paul Schneider as Brown sports a credible Scottish accent considering the fact that he's American and is ‘fearless in his portrayal of this puffed-up poetic thug' (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times). His Brown is ‘so abrupt, maladroit, gloweringly passionate and resentful that his first name might as well be Gordon' (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian).

Kerry Fox as Mrs Brawne and Edie Martin (in her first film) as Fanny's younger sister "Toots" were also widely praised.

 
Pro-files

Bright Star

JANE CAMPION

WRITER AND DIRECTOR
JANE CAMPION

In 2007 the Cannes Film Festival asked 33 directors to submit a short film about cinema to mark the event's 60th year. The list of those involved was a roll-call of the world's leading film-makers, so it was entirely right that New Zealander Jane Campion should be numbered among their company.

Since her 1990 breakthrough film, An Angel at My Table, a sensitive and poetic account of New Zealand writer Janet Frame's troubled childhood and young adulthood, Campion has established herself as a director of bracing originality. The success of An Angel... was followed by The Piano (1993), a period film set in late-19th-century New Zealand about an affair between a mute Scottish immigrant (Holly Hunter) and a local forester (Harvey Keitel). Emotionally intense and visually sumptuous, the movie was a major hit and won Campion the Palme d'Or at Cannes (making her the only woman to have picked up that award) and an Oscar for Best Writing. She was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Director.

Her follow-up film was another period piece, the 1996 Henry James adaptation The Portrait of a Lady. It was more subdued than The Piano but boasted a fine performance from Nicole Kidman.

In an industry starved of strong roles for actresses, Campion has created indelible, complex female characters, and continues to work with the biggest actresses today: Kate Winslet gave one of her strongest performances in Campion's rambunctious 1999 Australian outback drama Holy Smoke! and Meg Ryan gave a fearless performance in erotic thriller In the Cut (2003).

ABBIE CORNISH

FANNY BRAWNE
ABBIE CORNISH

Only 27, Australian actress Abbie Cornish is already a veteran of the profession, having acted (initially on TV) since she was 16. After winning an Australian Film Institute (AFI) new talent award for her performance in Sydney-set police drama Wildside (1997-1999), she began her film career with a part in critically admired atmospheric thriller The Monkey's Mask (2000). Her breakthrough film was Somersault (2004); she was utterly commanding as a teenage runaway, winning that year's AFI best actress award. Cornish next grabbed attention alongside Heath Ledger as a desperate heroin addict in compelling drugs drama Candy (2006). This raw and intense performance led to more international roles, notably in Iraq war drama Stop-Loss (2008), where she adopted a faultless US accent.

BEN WHISHAW

JOHN KEATS

With his wiry intensity and elfin good looks, Ben is one of Britain's hottest young actors. Bedfordshire-born Whishaw's early career included theatre stints at the Old Vic and a supporting part in British crime film Layer Cake (2004). But it was as the immoral protagonist in 2006 film Perfume that Whishaw broke through, at turns seductive and sinister in this lavish historical movie. Whishaw's rising fortunes were confirmed when he was cast alongside such established names as Richard Gere and Heath Ledger to play one of six incarnations of Bob Dylan in the 2007 kind-of biopic of the rock star I'm Not There. A year later he was a memorably dissolute Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited.

PAUL SCHNEIDER

CHARLES BROWN
PAUL SCHNEIDER

Paul Schneider is fast becoming one of US cinema's most versatile actors. His debut role was as one of the impoverished North Carolina youths in the critically admired George Washington (2000), whose director David Gordon Green also cast him as the lead in 2003 romantic drama All the Real Girls. Since then the actor's busy career has included supporting roles in Elizabethtown (2005) and, alongside Brad Pitt, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

KERRY FOX

MRS BRAWNE
KERRY FOX

Bright Star marks the second collaboration between Fox and her fellow New Zealander Jane Campion: she memorably played the adult Janet Frame in Campion's biopic of the writer. Since then Fox, now UK-based, has appeared in a variety of roles, including black-comedy thriller Shallow Grave (1994), harrowing real-life war story Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) and controversial erotic drama Intimacy (2001).

CLAUDIE BLAKLEY

MRS DILKE

Blakley has built up an impressive track record in theatre and quality prime-time television drama, including period adaptations Cranford (2007-9) and Lark Rise to Candleford (2008-9) and crime mystery Fallen Angel (2007). The 35-year-old has also appeared in acclaimed British movies such as Pride and Prejudice (2005), gritty thriller London to Brighton (2006) and comedy horror Severance (2006).

 
Cinemas

Bright Star

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