Reviews: Bright Star

Julia Cooke takes a look at Jane Campion’s 19th century love story, Bright Star.

Set in London in the 1800s, Bright Star is a drama based on the love affair of struggling poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his fashion-obsessed neighbour Frances ‘Fanny’ Brawne (Aussie Abbie Cornish). The film depicts their tumultuous relationship, which spanned three years. While period films and love stories generally top my list of ‘things to avoid’, I actually found this film moving, and even funny at times – perhaps because it resonated with my own views on love and loss.

The pair are slow to acknowledge their attraction, building a tension that is somewhat frustrating, but ultimately rewarding. Frequently kept apart by meddling friends and family, the time shared by the young lovers is brief and innocent, but made meaningful by their doe-eyed conviction when together and commitment to each other when apart. Predictably, Brawne becomes Keats’ muse, bringing an end to a stagnant stage in his career as a poet.

Brawne is devastated when Keats, guided by the forceful hand of his best friend and fellow poet Brown (excellently played by Paul Schneider), goes away to focus on his writing. The poor girl nearly has a breakdown, clinging desperately to every word Keats writes to her. When he finally returns, he has fallen sick, signalling the imminent demise of his physical life and her emotional stability.

Written and directed by Jane Campion, stylistic loveliness has been achieved in this film. The dialogue was sharp and witty, yet sparse when appropriate, allowing the weight of certain moments to claim the spotlight. The costuming, musical score and locations used are aesthetically pleasant, historically fitting and never jarring. Countless window shots are employed, possibly symbolising the constant presence of obstacles between the lovers.

There is such a fine line between sappy and beautiful. Impressively, this film managed to tiptoe along the right side of that line for the most part. I am proud to say that I didn’t snicker at either mention of Brawne’s “ripening breast”. Unfortunately the rest of my family can not say the same.

I was amazed at the impact this film had on me. When I analyse the plot, I realise that it’s not particularly original. The tragic love story has been done time and time again. Because I knew how it was all going to end before I’d even taken my seat, the element of surprise certainly can’t be credited either. Then it hit me. During a discussion about poetry in the film, Brawne mentions that she just “can’t work it out.” Keats explains, in true poetic style, that she’s completely missed the point. When we dive into a lake we do not dive in to work the lake out, he says. We dive in to feel the water, to experience the moment, not for any other reason. Poetry should be approached the same way (and film too, I think): there is no single ‘correct’ interpretation or answer, but instead a unique and slightly different experience available to everyone. Of course I’m only paraphrasing, he put it much more eloquently.

Essentially, this film reminded me of the importance of spending time with the ones you love and refusing to allow petty issues to come between you. It was beautifully shot and completely absorbing at times, save for a few lame moments and the fact that it dragged on a little long. Cornish delivered a standout performance (she really looks like a chubby Nicole Kidman – I dare you to disagree), her interactions with Brown were especially enjoyable. This film was able to make me feel. It made me feel the ache of love and the unbearable ache of love lost. Most embarrassingly though, as much as I tried to resist, it made me feel like such a girl.


– Julia Cooke

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