(Premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival in Competition for the Palme D’or)
When The Piano came out in 1993 and co-won the Palme D’or w/ Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine. Jane Campion received international attention after helming two feature films as she also became the second woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. Since then, Campion’s follow-up films to The Piano has divided audiences and critics that included an adaptation of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, the spiritual searching Holy Smoke!, and the 2003 erotic drama In the Cut. Campion took a break from feature-film making to do a couple of shorts for anthology films as she made her return in 2009 for a film about John Keats’ final years entitled Bright Star.
Written and directed by Jane Campion, Bright Star tells the story of John Keats’ final years as he finds a muse in a woman named Fanny Brawne. During these final years, Brawne would become more than his muse as the two would embark in a relationship that would shape Keats’ writing. Based on Andrew Morton’s biography on Keats, it’s a film that explores a man finding his muse in a woman who is different from many others. Starring Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Thomas Sangster, and Kerry Fox. Bright Star is a poignant yet mesmerizing romantic drama from Jane Campion.
It’s 1818 in London as Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is a woman who creates her own clothes and actually makes a living off of it. While she lives with her mother (Kerry Fox) and her two younger siblings in Samuel (Thomas Sangster) and Toots (Edie Martin). During a visit to meet Mrs. Dilke (Claudie Blakley), they meet a man who shares a house with Dilkes in Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). It is there that Fanny meets John Keats (Ben Whishaw) who is trying to write some new poems. Fanny is intrigued by Keats as Keats is amazed by Fanny’s sense of individuality and her ability to create her own clothes. While Fanny admits to not really understanding about poetry, Keats helps her as he decides to give her poetry lessons.
Despite having written a book of poems, Keats hasn’t been able to gain any financial success as Brown tries to help fund their lifestyle as they keep working. Keats and Fanny’s attraction increases though her mother isn’t so sure about this friendship until Brown writes a Valentine to Fanny as a joke. The joke upsets Keats as does Fanny as she ends their poetry lessons. When Fanny’s mother learns that the Dilkes are giving them the house they share with Brown as Fanny sees Keats again. The two renew their relationship as it blossoms into a romantic one until Keats had to leave with Brown to work in other places leaving Fanny upset. Though Keats and Fanny would write letters to each other, the longing for contact proves to be painful.
Keats eventually returns in the fall as he and Fanny renew their relationship once again as they decide to be secretly engaged. Keats suddenly becomes ill during the winter as friends try to help create funds for his new work and for his health. With suggestions for Keats to go to Italy for his health, Brown reveals that he couldn’t go because he needed to be with the Brawne’s new maid Abigail (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) whom he impregnated. Fanny wants to go to Italy to be with Keats as she helps him find a place to live. Instead, his illness worsens with Fanny taking care of him before he leaves for Italy as she hopes that they would marry upon his return.
While it is a love story about John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne, it’s really about a relationship between two different artists and personalities that grows into something far more powerful. Brawne is a woman who is a bit flirtatious though is really an individual who finds her talents in creating her clothes with fashions that are quite ahead of its time. Yet, she has managed to make a living for herself while helping her mother and two siblings. Keats meanwhile, is a writer who has the talents but couldn’t gain any success as he tries to make a living while living off funds of others. He’s also a character that is a bit unaware of his surroundings while being a bit naïve at times.
When he and Fanny are together, there is a side to them that is innocent but also a bit chaotic due to their personalities. Even as there’s a few people wary about the relationship such as Mr. Brown and Fanny’s mother. Brown is someone who’s had a very testy relationship with Fanny whom he’s known for some time while often thinks he’s not good enough for a man as introspective as Keats. Fanny’s mother is more cautious as she sees how Fanny reacts to Keats even to the point where she is bewildered by Fanny’s attempt to kill herself because she hadn’t heard from Keats.
Jane Campion’s screenplay succeeds in studying the behaviors and personalities of its main characters while not delving into a lot of heavy drama that often hinders most films about famous figures. Yet, Campion isn’t interested in historical context or facts but rather explore the relationship between Keats and Brawne. Even as characters like Fanny’s mother and Mr. Brown get some development since they’re watching the relationship from afar. Campion’s script also uses Keats’ poems and letters to help emphasize the emotional longing for both Keats and Brawne. Notably the poem Bright Star that is recited in the film a couple of times. While the ending is obvious since it is about Keats’ final years, her approach is more about showing it from Brawne’s perspective.
Campion’s direction is truly mesmerizing in the way she tells the story by shooting largely on location near where Keats and Brawne spent their time together along with a small scene in Rome, Italy where Keats died. Campion creates compositions that allows the audience to see what Keats and Brawne are making in their respective trades. Notably in moments where she has the camera shooting close-ups on Fanny’s hands sewing or Keats’ writing. For a large portion of the Keats-Brawne scenes, it’s always about the dramatic elements yet it is approached with a sense of restraint with some anguish used. One notable scene that allows Campion to present humor is when Keats and Brawne are walking behind Brawne’s sister Toots as Toots looks back and they freeze.
The subtle moments such as that scene along with scenes where Fanny and Toots surrounded themselves in a room full of butterflies or a scene where Keats is just having a lovely time with the Brawne family. Part of Campion’s brilliance is a director is to just soak up the world that the characters live in as there are many scenes where the characters surround themselves with nature. There are some gorgeous compositions that include a shot of Keats lying on top of a tree. It’s shots like that along with its broad presentation that does give the film a poetic tone which isn’t surprising since the film is about a poet’s final years. Overall, this is Campion at her best as she creates a solid yet engaging romantic drama.
Cinematographer Grieg Fraser does a superb job with the cinematography from the naturalistic yet lush look of the scenes of trees and flowers in the spring/summer periods to the rainy/winter looks that play to the dreary mood of the characters. Fraser’s work for many of the exteriors along that the interiors of the home that Keats lived in with Brown and the Brawnes is truly exquisite for its intimacy and dark look against its wooden walls. Editor Alexandre de Franceschi does an excellent job with the editing as it’s mostly straightforward while using fade-to-black for many transitions. Particularly in creating a pace that, while slow, is methodical to build the burgeoning relationship between Keats and Brawne.
Production/costume designer Janet Patterson, along with set decorator Charlotte Watts and art director Christian Huband do a great job with the set decorations in the look of early 19th Century housing and objects while Patterson‘s costumes are the real technical highlight of the film. Particularly with the dresses made and worn by Fanny to reflect her personality. Sound editors John Dennison and Tony Vaccher do a wonderful job in capturing the broad world of 19th Century London with its horse trots and homes along with the sparse yet intimate world of the natural surroundings the characters encounter.
The film’s music by Mark Bradshaw is brilliant for its melancholic tone with an array of somber string orchestral pieces and dramatic flourishes to play to the love of Keats and Brawne. Bradshaw also helps create arrangements for a couple of pieces by Mozart including a vocal piece from Mozart that some of the actors sing in a party scene for the film.
The casting by Nina Gold is amazing for the ensemble that is assembled for the film. Notable small roles include Samuel Roukin as a critic in a party scene, Olly Alexander as John Keats’ ailing brother Tom, Gerard Monaco as Mr. Dilke, and Samuel Barnett is a friend of Keats who helps fund is trip to Italy. Other notable but memorable small supporting roles include Claudie Blakley as family friend Mrs. Dilke who wonders about Fanny’s relationship to Keats and Antonia Campbell-Hughes as the young maid Abigail whom Mr. Brown is smitten with. Edie Martin is very good as Fanny’s youngest sister Toots in whom brings her playful side while Thomas Sangster is also good as Fanny’s younger brother Samuel who enjoys the company of Keats.
Kerry Fox is excellent as Fanny’s mother who observes her daughter’s behavior while wanting her to be cautious about embarking on this relationship. Notably in scenes when she sees her daughter in despair while being very calm about what’s happening though does like Keats despite his aloof personality. Paul Schneider is brilliant as Mr. Brown, Keats’ longtime friend and colleague who tries to keep things going only to cause trouble about Keats’ relationship with Brawne. While Schneider gets to be funny in a few scenes, it’s a very surprising role for the North Carolina-based actor who proves to have a lot of range of a man who is good but does a lot of bad things while admitting his faults.
Ben Whishaw is superb as John Keats, a brilliant but introspective poet who is attracted to Fanny Brawne as he starts a relationship with her. Whishaw brings a calm yet chilling performance as a man who is very insecure while he finds inspiration in Fanny. It’s a remarkable performance for the actor as he also has a wonderful yet touching chemistry with his co-star Abbie Cornish. Abbie Cornish delivers what is definitely her most radiant performance to date as Fanny Brawne. Cornish delivers a performance that is full of grace of a woman who is definitely one-of-a-kind as she keeps things to herself while being a great artist of her own. In her scenes with Whishaw, Cornish brings a restraint to the way she reacts to him while showing anguish in her scenes of heartbreaking and longing. It’s definitely a stunning performance from the Australian actress.
Bright Star is a magnificent yet ethereal drama from Jane Campion featuring great performances from Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw. Fans of John Keats work will definitely see this as a great dramatic interpretation on his life as well as his relationship with Fanny Brawne. Fans of Jane Campion will no doubt see this as a return-to-form following the disappointing 2003 film In The Cut. It is a very poignant yet beautiful film about John Keats and Fanny Brawne as Bright Star is definitely an amazing film from Jane Campion.
Jane Campion Films: Sweetie - An Angel at My Table - The Piano - The Portrait of a Lady - Holy Smoke! - In the Cut - Top of the Lake (TV Miniseries) - The Auteurs #25: Jane Campion
© thevoid99 2011