EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the Cannes Film Festival. The film is being released in theaters today.
This might sound horribly simplistic, but Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” desperately needs a sex scene. The movie puts such prominent focus on the romantic attraction shared by two characters — early nineteenth century poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his neighbor, budding fashion designer Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) — and yet the full culmination of their desire remains solely implied. As a result, “Bright Star” not only takes place in English during the 1800’s; it seems like a product of that very era.
Perhaps that’s the point. Either way, Campion has constructed a highly classical narrative, one driven by archaic British dialogue and the mannerisms to match it. If that’s your cup of tea, so to speak, “Bright Star” churns along without a flaw in sight. The traditional laws of opposites attracting come into play, as they must: Brawne initially scoffs at Keats’s monetarily impractical profession, while he dutifully turns up his nose at her Victorian stuffiness. Gradually, she begins to appreciate his creative abilities, and the sparks start flying — or, rather, slowly oozing out, given the near-prosaic pace.
That said, “Bright Star” has a number of strong supporting performances, including Paul Schneider as Keats’s buddy Brown, who realizes the impossibility of the couple developing a lasting relationship. This unavoidable tragedy gives “Bright Star” the fuel it needs to arrive at an emotionally stirring, if not unpredictable, conclusion. Everyone involved with the couple recognize the difficulty of their situation, such as Brawne’s kindly mother (Kerry Fox), but nobody stands in their way. It’s a tale of consent against impossible odds.
History tells us that Keats died at age twenty-five from a debilitating illness, but in the movie, nobody expects his life with Brawne to last long, even before he gets sick. As a broke artist, Keats relies on the support of those around him in a world where married men must develop the resources to protect their families. He’s a primal form of the unemployed bohemian, devoted to his craft to the point of impracticality.
As she grows familiar with Keats’s talent for words, Brawne herself develops a creative streak, at which point “Bright Star” hints at greater potential. The final shot of the movie finds her wandering through snow-covered woods, reciting the eponymous poem as a lyrical expression of her grief. In the first scene, she seems entirely shut in by her social values; by the end, she’s a bonafide free-thinker. If it arrived at this point earlier in the plot, “Bright Star” — like Brawne — might have a lot more to say, and more room to say it.