REVIEW: Bright Star

5 11 2009

If you want to watch a big, sweeping, 1800’s English romance, perhaps you should curl up with that pint of ice cream and watch “Sense & Sensibility” in bed again because “Bright Star” doesn’t fit the bill.  Sure, you have gorgeous countryside and fabulous cinematography, but the romance between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is much more muted than what one would expect.  In fact, writer/director Jane Campion has made a film that portrays more of their heartache than their amorous time together.  But the beauty of the movie comes from just that, the budding passion of their love that cannot bloom fully because of societal constraints and unfortunate illness.  And according to Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

For Keats, Brawne is literally the girl next door, but Campion makes sure that we do not mistake her for the stereotype that the term now bears.  We usually associate the girl next door with being innocent and straightforward, just the kind of girl to marry.  However, Keats thinks her a “stylish minx” (for those who don’t spreak pre-Victorian English, this he thinks she is quite the flirt).  And Brawne’s mother couldn’t be more happy with his disinterest in her daughter because he doesn’t make enough money writing poems.  Brawne also fears falling in love with Keats, but for a different reason; she doesn’t want him to have to give up what he loves to support her desire to design clothes.  Unlike most movie romances, their relationship doesn’t grow out of loathing, but rather out of amiability and friendship.  It is the disease of Keats’ brother and the sympathy that Brawne shows that brings them closer.  He then begins to see her almost as a muse, inspiring his best work yet.  Despite this, his friend and roommate Brown (Paul Schneider of “Parks & Recreation” in a performance that deserves to be remembered) resents her presence, perhaps as Campion suggest for his own selfish reasons.  The evidence is in the text that all the obstacles they faced only drew them closer to each other; Keats even wrote “I have the feeling as if I were dissolving.”  In an ironic twist, that which brought them together is the only thing that could tear them apart.

Campion wisely focuses her movie on Brawne, the character she seems to understand the most.  Keats proves to be quite an enigma, but Brawne proves to be quite a conundrum herself.  Sometimes her emotional swings, however, were quite nebulous.  Cornish plays them quite well, but I think the flaw comes from Campion’s script.  It wasn’t the dialogue that made them unclear; in fact, I caught witty, nuanced lines that no one in my theater noticed.  I don’t think it was the naivete of being a man that made her motives hazy because even my mother had to deliberate carefully on them.

Surprisingly, “Bright Star” is at its best when it steps away from the doomed romance and delves into the world of poetry.  Brawne asks Keats for poetry lessons, and rather than teach her to write it, he teaches her to appreciate it.  The sequences where he elaborates on why he writes are nothing short of sublime.  Keats tells her (and I quote roughly), “You don’t jump into an ocean to swim right back to shore.  You want to absorb the feeling of the water, feel the waves lapping.”  In a sense, the same could be said for Campion’s movie.  You dive into “Bright Star” not to see a movie but to immerse yourself in its beauty.  If this is your aim in watching the movie, the unhurried pace won’t be a bother, and it might even add to the experience as you find yourself encompassed by its grandeur.  B / 2halfstars