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9 October 2009, 2:00 pm 2 Comments

Cinespastic: A Thing of Beauty

This post was submitted by Ben K.

John Keats exists in the realm of the great poets.  We all know this, right?  Surely somewhere along the way you’ve had to read his poems in school, or maybe you even read them for your own pleasure.  But I bet I know- you were looking to impress that special guy or girl in your life and needed the perfect poem to commit to memory and whisper in between loving kisses.  Okay, maybe that’s a bit much, but when you take the time to read Keats you know that this is a man who understands love- the pain, the pleasure, the longing, and the wanting of love.

Cornish as Fanny Brawne reading a love letter from Keats

Cornish as Fanny Brawne reading a love letter from Keats

And isn’t it something to think that Keats was a man who was able to so exquisitely communicate love all before his untimely death at the age of 25.  He was a sensitive person surely, but someone must have inspired all those beautiful words in his poems.  Bright Star is about his relationship with that someone.

Written and directed by Jane Campion, Bright Star marries the poetic legacy of Keats with his romance with Fanny Brawne, a seamstress who was his neighbor.  The film marks a triumphant return for Campion to the big screen, and she delivers.  Gracefully executed, the story of Keats and Brawne unfolds as if it were at a pace mirroring the rhythm of a Keats love poem in a steady, florid, immediate build to its peak.

The film begins as Keats’ (Ben Whishaw) recent arrival in Hampstead to stay with his friend and fellow poet Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider) has brought interest in those who live nearby.  Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) comes to meet the visitor, and in short order, a careful flirtation begins between Keats and Brawne.  Unfortunate for Brawne, Keats’ companion Brown has nothing but disdain for her and her work as a dressmaker.  For her part, she carries a similar disdain for him, and is not timid to speak up when attacked.

Brawne is in fact, not timid in any way, and often seems like that woman of independence often associated with a time existing more in the present than in the past; but together, Campion and Cornish create in Brawne a character of believable pride and ability, whose strong understanding of herself allows her to rile the passions of the most sensitive of poets.

And sensitive Keats is.  Whishaw plays Keats as a brooding wit, much in the way we tend to characterize and think of the great poets.  He seems to be trapped in a state of melancholy opine- tortured by those things that his heart bleeds for in love.  Occasionally broad characterizations such as this work well in the hands of an expert, and through Campion, seemingly stock characters are enlivened with the breath of spirited dialogue and sumptuous scenery.

The trick of the film is to create a poetic world in which the characters walk, and each scene spent on the love of the two exists within an almost dreamlike state in which the camera carefully places its subjects in states of rapture and agony.  At times it appears as though Keats and Brawne are living out their romance in the fields and ponds of Monet.  Campion creates in each scene a set piece onto itself that is inhabited by stunning beauty.  Her camerawork is reminiscent of a great painter, deliberate in its placement of subject, with every surrounding object infused with meaning.  I imagine one could watch this movie countless times before picking up on all of the nuances she adds to each scene.

She gives gorgeous visual expression to the passion in Keats’ words.  In one letter, Keats write to Brawne, “I almost wish we were butterflies, and lived but three summer days.  Three such days with you I could fill with more delights than fifty common years could ever contain.”  Wow, right?  To match the beauty, these words are given incredible life in Campion’s hands.  Upon receiving the letter, Brawne commands her young brother and sister to begin capturing butterflies, and soon her bedroom is filled with them.  As her mother looks upon her as if she has lost her mind, love-struck Fanny exalts herself in the love that has washed over her as butterflies cover her and her bedroom.

Whishaw and Cornish as Keats and Brawne

Whishaw and Cornish as Keats and Brawne

But alas like all great loves, tragedy comes knocking on the door of unrestrained joy.  In time Fanny’s butterflies pass like Keats’ ability to breath easily. As tuberculosis slowly takes over his pallid frame, Brawne stubbornly carries the hope that their love will transcend the reality of his illness.  She has been the pragmatist to Keats’ dreamer, but by the end of the film her love has created in her the dreamer, and in Keats, illness has brought forward the pragmatist.

As Keats’ illness takes hold, Brawne finally becomes unhinged.  In these moments, Cornish shines in her ability as an actress to show both great restraint and heightened emotion.  She is an actress to watch for years to come.  Her performance is worthy of high acclaim, and I hope that she is not forgotten during award season.

It is really Cornish’s film to carry after all.  While the love story of one of literature’s beloved poets provides the plot of the film, it is told as Brawne ‘s story.  It is with her that we identify, and through her that the narrative is moved forward.  Campion has forged a career around focusing on female driven films, and this one is no different.  Bright Star projects a restrained femininity that is exquisite in its execution.  The love between the two is told through elaborate dialogue and ravishing scenery with no more than fleeting kisses.  There is no necessity to provide an explicit depiction of their love; in the capable hands of Campion, an expression of love is created in the purely implicit and cinematic work of her lavish camera.

If you’ve never seen a Jane Campion film before, I would like to recommend her 1993 classic The Piano as my DVD pick of the week.  If you’ve seen it before, revisit it; it’s that good.  A comparison of this film to Bright Star is also interesting as both display Campion’s talent for composing a scene through dialogue and direction to express feminine sensuality.  Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin both won Oscars for their roles and Campion won best screenplay.  For this film, she became only one of three women to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director.

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  • Hayden said:

    I didn’t even know that a movie was made on Keats. Thanks so much for the review. I’d love to see this film, being a huge fan of his (well, I’m a fan of the Romantics, period). :)

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