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Bright Star Review – TIFF North America Premiere: Jame Campion Documents Poet John Keats Love Affair

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Director Jane Campion’s Bright Star is a smart and beautiful film about the love affair between the poet John Keats and his young love, Fanny Brawne.

Australian “it girl” Abbie Cornish plays the plucky young Fanny Brawne, a fashionista, amusingly cloaked in one self-styled frock after the other. She knows little about poetry, but is still love struck by her neighbour, the poet Keats. Ben Whishaw (Perfume, I’m Not There) plays Keats, a serious and sensitive young poet – handsome but penniless and therefore an entirely unsuitable match for Fanny. Keats’ patron and friend Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider), specifically disapproves of Fanny, thinking her a shallow and silly young girl. His criticism never lets up.

Against the odds, the two fall deeply in love – their affair which was well-documented through a real-life exchange of personal letters which lovingly pepper Campion’s script.

Ben Whishaw as Keats is a Heart Breaker

Here, at long last, is a period drama not drowned in a sea of velvet and fanciful frocks. Which isn’t to suggest the costumes are lacking. To the contrary. Young Fanny Brawne was unapologetically fashion-forward and Bright Star relishes in imagining her designs, some of them sweetly outrageous. But Campion has managed to tell a story so engrossing with characters so vibrant that the clothes do not overwhelm the drama.

Cornish plays Brawne with a delicate balance of savvy and girlish vulnerability. She plainly loves Keats terribly and Campion isn’t afraid at dabbling in playful melodrama to illustrate Brawne’s girlish ardour. When Keats travels abroad, Fanny fills her chambers with butterflies and lazes about in a tortured lover’s haze waiting for letters from Keats. Which she then amusingly dissects word by word – like any love-lorn girl.

Whishaw as Keats is heart-breaking. Handsome. Romantic. Vulnerable. As Mr. Browne, Paul Schnieder is a terrific foil to the two lovers. Clad in the nuttiest pair of plaid all-in-one dungarees, Mr. Browne is at turns lewd, arrogant and loyal. If Whishaw and Cornish were any less outstanding in their roles, he’d steal the scenes right out from under them.

Director Jane Campion Has a Dizzying Eye for Detail

Campion tells the story with great sensitivity to the social mores of the day. This is no bodice-ripper, but a tale of love that is as passionate as it is (almost) entirely chaste. She uses Keats’ poetry and letters to propel the action (Keats wrote Bright Star for Fanny in 1819) and scenes unfold in dizzying and dazzling detail as the director lures viewers to forget where they are in favour of the world she has created.

A gorgeous film, Bright Star is beautifully acted and sensitively directed.

  • Bright Star (2009)
  • Director: Jane Campion
  • Starring: Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish
  • Runtime: 119 minutes

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