I remember reading the poet John Keats's work as a college student, and I very specifically recall the page-long description of his life. Two facts dominate his bio: that he died young and that he fell in love with the girl next door, Fanny Brawne. It was obvious that a romantic love story existed in that bare-bones text — and filmmaker Jane Campion has brought it to life in Bright Star.
Campion's film is the gorgeous and tragic story of Keats and Brawne. She doesn't merely set her movie in the early 1800s England and leave it there, she gives you an appreciation for a time when literature was exalted and marriage was a financial transaction.
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While the Internet provides access to every medium of entertainment, hearing the characters' fervor and esteem for poetry made me fantasize about living in this quieter era. Helping my cause are the swoon-worthy ways that lovers had to express their devotion while still remaining chaste. Though their love goes unconsummated, they achieve an even higher level of intimacy. One of his best poems is written for and about her — the "bright star" of the film's title.
As leading man John Keats, Ben Whishaw jettisons memories of his handful of supporting character credits (and one unsettling lead role). His character is sensitive and introspective to a fault, but Whishaw delivers a sexy, captivating performance.
The force that really carries the movie is Abbie Cornish's portrayal of Fanny Brawne; the film belongs to her and her emotional portrayal of the girl left behind. She makes you feel every stage of her involvement with Keats, from crush to infatuation to heartbreak when she fears she's been forgotten — and finally, to devastation when she loses her beloved to death. It's almost unbelievable that Brawne was supposed to have been seen as a silly girl only interested in fashion and flirting, because Cornish plays her so earnestly and with so much depth.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Paul Schneider and his portrayal of Keats's best friend, curmudgeonly fellow writer Charles Armitage Brown. I've been anxious to see Schneider in a meatier role since All the Real Girls — while he's cute in things like Parks and Recreation, he gets to shine as an actor in Bright Star. A full-on Scottish brogue isn't the only thing that Schneider uses to distance himself from his lighter work; he's charmingly loathsome as Brown, picking apart Fanny's every move. But when Keats's health is threatened, Brown's love for his friend overcomes his hard exterior to as he nurses Keats day and night.
Even if history couldn't do the same for Keats and Brawne, the love in Bright Star, platonic or romantic, lifts you up.