Some love affairs are looked upon as works of art in themselves. Perhaps they possess a mysterious golden ratio of joy and pain that encapsulates a culture’s most fundamental notions about romantic attachment. As with our relationship to art, our appreciation of these mythic pairings can help us reconcile the messy materials of life with our ideals and allow us to maintain the belief that, if we love with sufficient fierceness and dedication, we can confer immortality on the things we hold dear. What the great Romantic poet John Keats shared with his neighbor, Fanny Brawne, during the early nineteenth century holds a prominent place in this lovers’ hall of fame, and part of the enduring appeal of their story lies in the contrast between Keats’s taste for beauty and perfection and the darker truths of class, illness, jealousy, and grief. As the poet’s star has steadily risen over the past century, the image of his one great love has only served to solidify his reputation as a man of unsurpassed sensitivity, a myth born as much out of his haunting (and now widely read) love letters as from his verse.
Fanny Brawne’s perspective on the relationship is considerably less well documented, and the challenge of inventing a plausible sensibility for her is confronted in Jane Campion’s Bright Star, which takes this young woman’s experience of first love as its center. The film starts with a tribute to woman’s work—an extreme close-up of a needle piercing through cloth—as though setting us up for a demure homebody heroine. But the first several scenes move along at the sprightly pace of a smart battle-of-the-sexes comedy. When we first meet Fanny (Abbie Cornish), she is verbally sparring with Keats’s best friend, poet and male chauvinist Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), and matching him barb for barb. The ease with which Campion depicts women’s power and agency during repressive times is a rarity in movies, and it exposes just how condescending period films often are to even their strongest heroines. Thanks to her gift for locating depths of expressiveness in actresses, Campion has found in Abbie Cornish’s Fanny perhaps the most self-assured figure in her entire oeuvre. She seems so comfortable in her own skin, so complete and fulfilled even before her lover makes his first appearance, that it’s a pity we gradually lose her wit and sharp humor as the film succumbs to Keats’s sincerity and ponderousness. Cornish is able to signal complexity through confidence, and she serves as the film’s embodiment of Keats’s “negative capability,” that state in which a person can reside in mystery and doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Click here to read the rest of Andrew Chan’s review of Bright Star.