Film Review: 'Bright Star' shines tender light on Keats romance

 Struggling poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) carries on an unwise romance with neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) in ''Bright Star.'' Director Jane Campion gives viewers the feeling of a privileged look through a window into a bygone world.

Struggling poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) carries on an unwise romance with neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) in ''Bright Star.'' Director Jane Campion gives viewers the feeling of a privileged look through a window into a bygone world.

The most perfect film of the year arrives in Memphis today with just two weeks to spare.

Inspired by the brief, consuming but apparently unconsummated love affair between the English Romantic poet John Keats, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25, and his neighbor, Fanny Brawne, "Bright Star" takes its title from a Keats sonnet, but its Vermeer-like cinematography, its immaculate period production design and its tender performances suggest the famous opening line of Keats' "Endymion": "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever," however doomed that beauty may be, and however much that joy is tinctured with sorrow.

London 1818: a secret love affair begins between 23 year old English poet, John Keats, and the girl next door, Fanny Brawne, an outspoken student ...

Rating: PG for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking

Length: 119 minutes

Released: September 19, 2009 Nationwide

Cast: Paul Schneider, Abbie Cornish, Thomas Sangster, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox

Director: Jane Campion

Writer: Jane Campion

More info and showtimes »

Written and directed by Jane Campion ("The Piano"), with Andrew Motion's 1997 biography "Keats" as a prime source, "Bright Star" is utterly convincing in its evocation of life among the unstable gentry in the parklike village of Hampstead in the second decade of the 19th Century, where the penniless Keats (Ben Whishaw) is able to pursue his art with the support of his friend and fellow writer, the sardonic Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider, who gives the sliest and most entertaining supporting performance of the year).

Keats' status as a published if struggling poet and his association with Brown brings him to the attention of the neighboring Brawnes, especially Fanny (Abbie Cornish), a pretty young girl who considers the irreverent Brown "a disgusting ape" and who is something of an artist herself, through her stitching, as seen in her somewhat outré homemade outfits. "This is the first frock in all of Woolwich or Hampstead to have a triple-pleated mushroom collar," she tells the amused Keats, with pride.

Typically trailed by Fanny's little sister, Toots, and her top-hatted younger brother, Fanny and Keats begins a shy, impossible (Keats has no income, and thus is unsuitable for marriage) almost unacknowledged courtship. They stroll through flowered meadows and on wooden paths through banks of reeds, accompanied on the soundtrack most often only by the buzz of insects, the sigh of the wind and the music of birds.

Keats -- the fingers on his writing hand as stained with ink as a carpenter's would be marked by callouses (Campion misses no detail) -- speaks of poetry as "an experience beyond thought," and an art that "soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery." Replies Fanny: "I love mystery." Campion loves it, too; using (apparently) natural light for most of her impeccable compositions, she invests much of the film with an airy stillness that finds a unexplainable sense of wonder -- amazement, even -- in simple shots of Fanny reading a letter in a window or of clothing flapping on a line above a muddy field.

The characters in "Bright Star" seem authentic and modern, not because they've been tricked out with the attitudes of incipient feminism or the other personality accouterments that movies typically use to make centuries-old characters seem "relevant," but because their behavior and emotions are honest, believable. The movie doesn't seem like a recreation or a museum piece; instead, Campion makes us feel as if we have been privileged to look through a window into a bygone world, even when the ideas tend toward the symbolic, as when Fanny cultivates a bedroom filled with exquisite, fragile butterflies that, like Keats, dazzle for a moment, then die.

"Bright Star" is playing exclusively at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

© 2009 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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