In a film genre as overrun by dull, contrived rubbish as romance, Bright Star stands out as an elegant yet effective romantic drama. Written and directed by Jane Campion, Bright Star recounts the historical 3-year romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw), and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) that was cut short by Keats’ death from tuberculosis.
Keats and Brawne have a rare dynamic that sets their relationship apart from other cinematic couples. This is largely to due to the time period in which their relationship is set. While there is no doubt that they love each other, their interaction is restrained, by modern standards. For the most part, they address each other as “Mr. Keats” and “Miss. Brawne” and their relationship is entirely chaste. It is fascinating how the absence of sex impacts how their relationship comes across on screen. Most of the time, in period pieces, when lovers conduct themselves in a proper manner, such as in Atonement and Birdsong, it is perceived as evidence of the suppressive nature of the society in which they live. It serves to build sexual tension and contrast with the graphic, raunchy sex that the characters eventually engage in. Not so in Bright Star. Their chasteness enhances what little physical contact they do share. Each kiss, each embrace, each close up of their intertwined fingers is so much more satisfying because it feels earned. This is not to say that the film is naive to extramarital sex in the 19th century. Keats’ friend, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), advises Keats to “bed” Brawne and be done with it and later impregnates one of the maids.
The role that poetry plays in the film is another factor that separates Bright Star from other period romances. Arguably, the movie is about poetry just as much as it is about the relationship between Keats and Brawne. Bright Star depicts a world in which educated members of society debate the merits of poems the way people in the 21st century discuss TV shows and movies. However, Brawne is, by her own admission,“not clever with poetry.” In addition to being historically accurate, this characterization of Fanny Brawne helps poetry-illiterate audiences relate to her. Furthermore, the notion that the John Keats falls in love with a woman who doesn’t like poetry humanizes him for audiences who associate him with AP English. This characterization also leads to a poetry lesson between Brawne and Keats in which Keats offers the greatest insight into poetry ever written by comparing poetry to a lake. “The point of diving in a lake,” he says, “is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation not water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought.”
Unlike most historical dramas, the most frustrating aspect of Bright Star lies in its fidelity to historical accuracy. Keats’ poverty as an unsuccessful poet is initially the greatest obstacle to Keats and Brawne’s relationship. However, once he falls ill with tuberculosis, well-meaning friends keep the lovers apart, believing that their passion will exacerbate Keats’ fever. When Keats’ condition worsens, his friends start a fund to send him and a companion (who is not Brawne, for some reason) to Italy in a vain attempt to keep him alive. It is aggravating to watch Keats and Brawne be deprived of their time together, even more so because neither of them ever take a real stand against any of it. Yet, this cannot be made into a valid criticism against the film as it is merely portraying historical events.
The story may be aggravating at times, but the depiction of Keats and Brawne’s relationship is truly endearing and the role that poetry plays in the film is, perhaps, the most intriguing aspect of the film. All of this culminates to make Bright Star a rare example of a well-made romantic drama.
Click here for commentary on the Bright Star poetry tracks on the soundtrack.