Bright Star, the tale of John Keats' and Fanny Brawne's doomed romance, unfolds over several seasons in Hempstead, England in 1819 - autumn, Christmas, lovers' springtime and summer, another autumn of mortality, finally the desolate winter of death. Its soundtrack makes ample use of Keats' pregnant poesy (in a bout of facile alliteration, I almost stupidly wrote "pregnant prose"!), but the film takes its emotional and narrative cues from Brawne's more innocent sense of first love. This makes for a simpler, gentler, and perhaps less compelling film than one focused on the great artist. Not that Brawne was dull or simple - her acute sense of fashion is well-reflected in the film's delicate artfulness (particularly the Oscar-nominated costume design), while her obvious intelligence is displayed in the movie's dialogue, particularly her own early exchanges. Yet she is still in many ways a girl (emphasis on youth rather than gender), a very young woman in the throes of first love. The movie reflects this too and is imbued with an often pleasing naivitee which at times runs the risk of seeming prosaic.
Keats, to a certain degree, remains offscreen. Not that he isn't, physically at least, frequently in view - embodied by Ben Whishaw in an understated but effective performance, the poet leaves the Brawne home behind many times but is always drawn back like a boomerang (to borrow an analogy from Campion's home continent). Yet his inner state often remain beyond our grasp. Telling Brawne that he's uncomfortable around woman, that his feelings may be "improper," Keats nonetheless dissolves in her arms like a puppydog; no doubt this is how it felt to her, but what drives and urges was he struggling to repress? Likewise, his frequently-voiced fascination with the end of life - though we hear him cry, "I have been half in love with easeful Death" and moodily counter wishes for an eternity in Brawne's presence with "or else swoon to death," this morbid fatalism never really takes ahold of the movie proper. Instead death is something glimpsed, whispered about, a phenomenon frightening and mysterious and only dimly understood - here as elsewhere, the movie embodies Brawne's fundamental innocence.
This is not a flaw of course, but it does entail certain consequences. One of them being that the film lags in the middle: the initial intellectual flirtations of Keats and Brawne and the eventual tragic poignance of the doomed romance momentarily are overshadowed by a catalog of romantic cliches, often charming, but thinly so. To Brawne, of course, these images of a blooming lovers' springtime are new, intoxicating, heady - but to 21st-century audiences they are familiar, and in need of a bit more flavor. Unfortunately, Campion does not temper the arthouse gentility with a great deal of passion or invention, and so the wit of the early passages gives way to a slightly swooning romance (a riper melancholy waits in the wings). It is at these moments that we wish for a bit more of Keats, for the perspective which sees the deeper amplifications of this fleeting love, or the sad mist of mortality hanging over it all. As it is, we hear him reciting his poems over the picture-postcard scenes of the English countryside, but somehow it didn't quite seem enough.
Yet of course the movie should not give us Keats' full perspective, and is wise to stay with Brawne, even if I wish it could have infused her romantic daydream with a bit more verve (a verve the real Brawne, with her sharp eye and keen wit, no doubt exuded). Abbie Cornish gives a supple, sensitive performance as Brawne, though at times Campion flaps this butterfly's wings a bit too forcefully - when Brawne stalks the woods reciting her dead lover's poem aloud, it feels a bit forced. Cornish is far closer to 19th century ideals of beauty than those of our own era - a bit plump and wan she is nonetheless lovely, particularly in certain lights, wearing certain outfits. As she falls deeper into love with Keats and becomes more conscious of her own appeal to him, we see her bloom, the still childlike bud of the early scenes blossoming into something more womanly.
The quiet effectiveness of a few closing sequences - particularly when Brawne sobs uncontrollably - leads one to suspect a rivulet of wild, aching emotion just beneath the film's pretty surfaces. Maybe even that dissatisfying middle is ripe for the picking if approached in the right spirit. Could Campion have exposed this strain just a little more, giving us more of an "in" to slip between the movie's at times distancing historicity and enthusiasm-damping arthouse devices? Perhaps. Maybe the right attitude circumvents these flaws (though I can't see how it can render them virtues). Campion, at any rate, is a filmmaker unafraid of falling into "art film" cliches - take her acclaimed The Piano (the only other Campion feature I've seen, though her short film "A Girl's Own Story" is a refreshingly stark, poppy, and surreal treat). Like Bright Star, The Piano embraces a lush mixture of stately voiceover, wordless "poetic" slices of imagery, and exquisite attention to props, costumes, and period detail.
The potential greatness of that film derives from its radicalism - the way the movie's external beauty seems both to give voice to and suppress the frustrated yearnings of its mute heroine. This subversive strain is altogether absent from Bright Star, which humanizes even the potentially villainous characters. Indeed, the film's best performance is given by Paul Schneider, who articulates Charles Armitage Brown with a fine, lilting Scotch brogue, a near-demonic teasing intelligence, and a wounded mixture of admiration and jealousy when it comes to Keats, to whom he confesses literary inferiority. Brown is the character who comes closest to giving Bright Star an edge and a tension.
Bright Star is a fine film, full of exquisite craftsmanship and excellent performances. It may be even better than I allow - it has the air of a work which yields its treasures slowly, cautiously, requiring the viewer to chip away bit by bit. Whether or not this is the case (and some, incidentally, have not needed any chiseling to breathe its air fully and deeply), it is a movie worth seeing and savoring. To regard Campion's taciturnity with a dash of skepticism is not to forget that such delicacy is exceedingly rare; if the filmmaker underplays her hand, so that at times gestures seem to outnumber insights, at least these gestures are not overbearing. Bright Star may be powerful or merely ok - but its restraint leaves room for the possibility of such power, which is certainly something.