A film saturated with color, light, and the fervid panting of young, inspired love, director Jane Campion bravely challenges the daunting task of transforming cringe-worthy 19th century cliches into flesh and blood spirits that will shake 21st century snark and cynicism. I, admittedly, was wary of dropping the cash, too embarrassed to indulge guilty Romantic pleasures in public when I can play Masterpiece Classic glutton in the privacy and comfort of my own home. Yet, with painstaking attention to detail and nuance, Campion turns stuffy tropes into forceful and irresistible gales. John Keats and Frances, or Fanny, Brawne, played by Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, are two irreverent spirits whose appetites make the skin blush and sometimes chill in the rawness of their youth.
What’s most interesting about this film is the unstated yet obvious economics that makes Art possible. Keats’ best friend, fellow poet, and comfortably wealthy patron, Charles Armitage Brown, performed by Paul Schneider, is a sycophantic lech who lures and leers at both the audience and Fanny. Without lecherous Brown’s help, at least according to the film, Keats, with no family to turn to, wouldn’t have been able to write his first collections since Brown was essentially the young Romantic’s protector and provider. Fanny Brawne lived next door to the poets with her widowed mother, younger brother and younger sister, each superbly portrayed by Thomas Sangster and Edie Martin. If Ms. Brawne had a father, we could reasonably argue, her freedom to cavort and flirt with a penniless poet neighbor would have been abruptly curtailed. No decent and respectably proper Englishman would allow such flagrant and free-thinking behavior. Fanny would have been checked immediately and carted off to Towne, tasked to stalk a would-be-husband at any one of those countless balls these Regency pieces love to screen (as gratuitous as the Braveheart war-rallying sequence in action periods). However, Fanny has no domineering daddy and, instead, enjoys a candid and close relationship with her mother who doesn’t encourage the blossoming relationship with Keats but certainly doesn’t force any conventions or corner Ms. Brawne into a restricted ideology.
Of course this is the magic of cinema, and this reviewer is not all too familiar with the relations and history of the poet, but Campion leads us to believe that the freedom to dream, and create art, was loaned to Yeats and Fanny both by Fanny’s mother and Mr. Brown. Mrs. Brawne was substantially well off enough to care for her three children in moderately comfortable Hampstead arrangements, which afforded the family leisure time to play with poets and only occasionally wring hands over what society’s elite might be saying. Brown knew full well his friendship with Keats was an investment and believed in his work when the critics and other Romantics ridiculed him. These relationships, Campion argues, yielded great returns. The free thinking mom and the free dealing Brown together alchemize a love affair that would wrought poetry to last an eternity. Truth and beauty counts but there’s usually a bottom line to both, and this bottom line is subtly and intricately traced throughout the film. Bright Star is not just a love story, but a careful and shadowed study on how economic means begets Art.
Fall 2009. Director: Jane Campion. Cast: Paul Schneider, Abbie Cornish, Thomas Sangster, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox
Image from Interview “Visible from Cannes” May 20, 2009