Most films about famous poets tend to play like old TV commercials for pop music anthologies. If Jane Campion had directed Bright Star in that mode, it’d play more like John Keats’ Greatest Hits. Voice-overs would recite the 19th-century romantic poet’s signature couplets over pretty landscapes and literal images — "Ode on Grecian Urn" with shots of gleaming crockery, perhaps — culminating with lush soundtrack music and a weeping, cheering crowd.
Bright Star breaks the biopic mold and doesn’t even include “Grecian Urn,” probably Keats’ most-studied work from English lit 101. Campion, who directed the Oscar-winning The Piano, includes plenty of verse, but places most of the lines in the context of the film’s central relationship. Keats’ star-crossed love for neighbor Fanny Brawne informed some of the young poet’s greatest work, including the title sonnet.
When the pair first meets and falls in love in Hampstead, Keats and Brawne reverse some of early 19th-century England's gender roles. Keats (Ben Whishaw) defends honest emotion over show-offy cleverness, while Brawne’s (Abbie Cornish) interest in fashion earns her a modest income. “My stitching has more admirers than your scribblings put together. And I made money from it,” Brawne points out to Keats’ lifelong friend and collaborator, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider). Oh, snap!
Although Keats tends to be the poster boy for the young, wan romantic poet too beautiful for this world, Whishaw plays against the easy stereotypes. Though physically frail, Whishaw’s Keats takes pleasure in silly parlor games and playing outdoors with Brawne’s young siblings, and conveys equal passion for Brawne and his craft. Cornish, meanwhile, captures the exhilaration and depression of unrequited love, since Keats’ ill health and lack of income make marriage an impossibility.
Knowing the couple has no future, Brown works to undercut the budding relationship at every turn. Contemporary audiences may wonder if a homoerotic dynamic exists between the two poets, but primarily Brown sees the young woman as a threat to Keats’ poetry. He essentially appoints himself as guardian of Keats’ genius, whether Keats wants it or not. Schneider’s performance tends to be a bit one-note — he’s constantly blocking Brawne with variations on the same contemptuous smile — but it marks a striking change from his nice-guy role on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.”
Compared to the Jane Austen films that take place slightly before this time period, Bright Star captures the simple pastimes, close quarters and nearly the smells of 19th-century middle-class life. Rather than have a sense of cameras and wardrobe mistresses just out of view of the impeccably appointed shots, Bright Star seems like it's been shot through a time machine. The settings seem smaller, dirtier and rougher-hewn than the usual period piece. Throughout the film, Brawne’s young brother and sister are always close at hand, reflecting both claustrophobic proximity and the warmth of shared family lives.
Campion frequently presents shorter, less conclusive scenes than the usual literary love story. She also avoids a melodramatic tone, so an aching sense of futility hangs over Keats and Brawne’s affair. Even if you don’t know how Keats died, you brace yourself for an unhappy ending. Campion’s film can feel draggy and repetitive in its second hour, but it’s also one of the most convincing and deeply felt author biopics in years: Bright Star will serve as a role model for films to come. It takes to heart the lesson from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”