From Jane Campion, the director of The Piano, comes the period piece Bright Star, an examination of the relationship between Fanny Brawne and famed romantic poet John Keats. The term "period piece" is used to describe the movie somewhat scathingly, as while it certainly transcends similar films of old, it can't quite escape them.
In Bright Star, Abby Cornish stars as the 18-year old Fanny, a Londoner who falls for the awkwardness of a poet living nearby, one John Keats (portrayed by Ben Whishaw). The two strike up an uneven relationship, one that is barely consummated on screen, but their love for one another is put to the test when Keats gets ill and moves to Rome to heal. As seems to always be the case with poets, Keats dies of his illness at an early age.
The performances in Bright Star are strong and the best aspect of the movie, which is titled after a line in one of Keats' poems. Cornish's Fanny is much like Elizabeth Bennet, a strong-willed, not-afraid-to-speak-her-mind woman who slowly lets her defenses down to Keats. When the wall is pulled away, though, her life crumbles emotionally as Keats' does physically.
Whishaw, who was last seen in The International and the period piece Brideshead Revisited, but who I recall most from I'm Not There, is also very good. His portrayal of Keats is of a nervous man, a romantic poet who is afraid to be romantic. He seems unwilling to fully let Fanny into his heart, as if anticipating his untimely demise. Of course, he's thinking more practically at the time: he is a poor poet who can't afford a woman of Fanny's stature as his wife.
While the performances are strong, the rest of the movie suffers from typical period piece melodrama (and by "period piece" I refer to Victorian era stories), in that Bright Star feels unnaturally subdued, the characters concerned with all things characters from that era are always concerned about. I referenced Pride and Prejudice earlier, and to compare Bright Star to the 2005 Joe Wright masterpiece (which starred Keira Knightley), that movie was set in Victorian/Georgian times but not locked to it. In other words, Pride and Prejudice was able to inject a real sense of life, love and chemistry into the era, whereas Bright Star is restrained to do so. The fact that Fanny is so similar to the Jane Austen heroine hurts, because it becomes painstakingly clear that Bright Star has nothing new to offer.
Much of the film's problems come down to the chemistry between Cornish and Whishaw, though that problem lies more in the screenplay, which was also written by Campion, than with the actors. The movie never convinced me why Fanny fell for the seemingly unflattering Keats other than a curiosity given that he was in complete contrast to his obnoxious, boisterous friend Charles Armitage Brown (played by Paul Schneider, who is great, except for that his character is too over-the-top at times). Their relationship develops throughout the movie, as do their characters, but those two elements don't sync together. Bright Star fails to convince me why Fanny, and the audience, should be so emotionally stricken when Keats nears death.
Bright Star has its moments, primarily thanks to the lead actors, but it fails to present anything new. The movie is a combination of a Jane Austen tale and a tragic story about a poet, neither of which are unique in this day and age.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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