CAPSULE: Director and writer Jane Campion gives us the story of the ill-fated love of Fanny Brawne for the impoverished poet John Keats, one of England's greatest. Were it not for the tragic tone the story, set in the early 1800s, it would fit nicely into Jane Austen territory. We have a story of love doomed by poverty. Keats has the dilemma of having neither the time nor money to have a relationship with Brawne, as he is trying desperately to be a great poet. BRIGHT STAR bogs down in the middle and only moves again when things become even worse for Keats. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
One of my more controversial film reviews was that of Jane Campion's THE PIANO, a film well-liked and highly rated by the critics, but which I found to be no more than an over-wrought soap opera. Years later I was still getting mail from people who also did not like the film. I think that Campion's talent has improved over the years, but I am still not keen on her choice of story. And like that film she is still telling tragic tales of the great and under-appreciated destroyed by convention.
BRIGHT STAR is the story of a doomed romance. Fanny Brawne (played by Abbie Cornish) is attracted to John Keats (Ben Whishaw), her neighbor and her mother's tenant who is an aspiring poet. She is, however, frustrated that Keats does not reciprocate her interests. Keats is mired in the depths of poverty, and he is practicing for a profession, poet, that pays very little and that pay goes only to a very select few. The poet has enough to do to stay alive and, in spite of his romantic profession, cannot himself give in to romance. Keats slowly relents and reveals some affection for Brawne, but only in the most stifled manner. Nor does he feel he can bridge the difference of social class between his and Brawne's.
The main characters of this film form an unconventional triangle, though not exactly a love triangle. Keats has affection for Brawne, but he also has loyalty to his mentor, one Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), a crude and rude vulgarian and a co-tenant of Brawne's mother. Brown and Brawne detest each other almost immediately and Brown baits and patronizes Brawne. They both vie for Keats's time and attention.
The first twenty minutes of BRIGHT STAR are enjoyable in a sort of Jane Austen-y sort of manner. We have a view of early 19th century life filmed darkly and coldly by Greig Fraser. Eventually Brawne wins Keats over so that he does show his affection, but he still is not solvent enough to give her much hope. It is a stalemate and the film remains stuck in this impasse for most of the rest of the film. Things happen, but the plot takes its time in progressing.
We see a great deal of Keats sitting around and thinking about poetry and talking to his mentor, but the film really gives us very little insight into the poet himself or his craft. We are told his poetry is special, but we do not know how it gets that way. Campion does not know how Keats gets his inspiration and is not willing to speculate for the viewer. He apparently just sits in concentration and makes it up. We get a little better impression of the fashion-conscious Brawne. Her interest in Keats comes naturally, but she has to force herself to be interested in poetry and it seems only because she knows a poet. Most frustrating is Charles Brown, who hardly seems to be of a poetic nature at all and who taunts Brawne. Like the Billy Zane character in TITANIC, he has almost no lines in the script not intended to make him seem more detestable. Each time he speaks we like him less. When we first see him he is smoking a cigar, a cliché for selfish, inconsiderate male. And he lives up to that assessment in his every scene. He is written less as a character than as a slow- motion natural disaster. Campion is good as a filmmaker, but her stories have a touch of polemic. She is a better director than a writer.
This is a worthwhile story told with lukewarm emotion. The doomed love comes off as less a tragedy than a pity. The background makes this story more interesting than the foreground does. I rate BRIGHT STAR a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0810784/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/bright_star/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper