film review: Bright Star

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Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

–John Keats

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Bright Star, written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano) is wondrously languid, romantic and exquisitely filmed. It tells the story of the tender and tragic love affair between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse and love Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) as told through her eyes. She lives with her mother and two younger siblings. Quite popular among men, Fanny is known as a flirt and yet has not settled into marriage like many of her peers. Love seems much more important to Fanny than money. Fanny meets Keats when he and his boorish benefactor, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), rent rooms at Fanny’s family home. At first, she’s unsure about Keats and even the value of poetry. She reads his first book of poems and finds that the young man has some promise. Fanny is an independent woman, for that era, who needs no man to be happy yet finds the love of her life right in her own home, right under her own roof. Fanny expresses her artistic sensibility through beautiful, elaborate dresses with detailing such as pleats or a “triple mushroom collar.” Perhaps this is why she and Keats strike up a harmonious connection. The more time the two spend together, the more fond they grow of each other. Unfortunately, Keats has no fortune and makes no money from his poetry.

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In Bright Star, Abbie Cornish, (Stop Loss) portrays nearly every emotion and it is a revelatory and devastatingly stunning performance.  Fanny alternates between being achingly supportive and gently provocative. She remains extremely devoted to her family (her younger brother and sister often accompany Keats and Fanny on outings) despite the courtship. Their pure and honest love gently grows and the bond between the two becomes powerful and enviable. In his portrayal of Keats, Whishaw (Brideshead Revisited) turns in an introspective, yet commanding performance. His Keats is eyes and voice and empathy. Cornish and Whishaw have simmering chemistry. Campion has created an idyllic, artistic film which appears as beautiful as a watercolor painting. Each scene is so carefully executed and painstakingly acted that the audience shares in Fanny’s genuine journey with Keats. Bright Star is a serene, perfectly crafted film about the power of love.

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