Director Jane Campion, starring Abbie Cornish (Fanny Brawne), Ben Whishaw (John Keats)
“Bright Star”, with its focus on the relationship between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, is a true, dramatic story. The Romantic poet had just published his first collection to a mixed critical reaction and she was the eldest daughter from a respectable family trained in lively, light conversation and homemaking. There was resistance to the match: his friends didn’t much like her, suspecting she’d force him back into an energy-sapping career in medicine and she was frequently reminded a penniless poet was not a good match.
Ultimately their love was doomed as Keats became terminally ill and died at the age of 25, and, when your audience know the ending, it can be difficult to maintain dramatic tension and interest. But that’s not the problem here. There is no dramatic tension to maintain. Fanny’s mother seems very sympathetic towards her daughter’s love for a poet who can never marry her. The family friend’s warnings about Keats’ unsuitability carry all the weight of a mother asking a child to wear a sweater on an overcast day. Similarly, when Keats asks his friends to let him see Fanny, it carries no urgency. Fanny does suggest they become engaged so she can travel to Italy with him, but meekly accepts her mother’s refusal. Whilst this is no place for melodrama, it’s also no place for a lack of urgency.
Visually “Bright Star” looks like a Jane Austen adaptation with darker sitting rooms and poetry in place of wit. And the poetry is good. It doesn’t sound forced and watching the characters recite poetry from memory looks and sounds natural. No one falls into the trap of putting on a ‘poetic’ voice, usually the one that’s slower and more ponderous than normal speech.
Watch “Bright Star” for the poetry, but don’t expect more than a faithful re-telling of a well-worn story that curiously under-utilises the natural drama it has to draw on. It’s gentle and Ben Whishaw did little but look wistful and weak. Abbie Cornish though carried the film and made Fanny Brawne’s story compelling, giving her more to do than just sitting around languidly watching John Keats write poetry.