At a time when anything goes on the Internet and even network TV is loosening its standards in terms of the language and behavior it depicts, you've got to wonder who the audience is for a love story where the most passionate moments are built around romantic poetry and a few chaste kisses.
Jane Campion's Bright Star is such a film. A story about the love (one hesitates to call it an affair) between the short-lived poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his neighbor, a young woman named Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish), Campion's film is about the love of beauty -- particularly the ability of poetry to move the soul -- and about longing.
But longing is a tough thing to dramatize on film. It can be done, but it takes a filmmaker such as Ang Lee, who understands the difference between restraint and disengagement. Campion, unfortunately, seems unable to overcome the latter with Bright Star.
In her film, set in 1818 England, Fanny, the oldest daughter of a widow of means, is taken with the poetry of Keats. She goes to visit him, at the digs he shares with his friend and writing companion, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider, too modern by half). Brown dismisses Fanny as a creature of fashion (who designs and sews her own clothes), which, in his mind, is a fluff-headed pursuit. (Well, he's right about that.)
But Fanny offers Keats constructive thoughts on his work and a spark is struck. Unfortunately, the first half of the film is devoted to Brown's jealous efforts to keep Keats to himself -- and the second half is about Keats dying of tuberculosis. And, oh yes, he and Fanny get some alone time to talk about poetry and how much they love each other and how unfair the world is because Keats is too much of a pauper to afford to marry Fanny before he kicks off at the age of 25.
Whishaw and Cornish are subtle enough actors to capture that hidden fire that can only be stoked by holding hands and a little light necking. Campion's painterly eye makes the English countryside alternately beautiful and forbidding, depending on the weather.
But Bright Star seems to be a lot about very little, a miniature projected to Imax size. So much goes unspoken that what remains seems almost trite. When Fanny mopes and weeps because an absent John hasn't written her enough letters -- or when John explodes because Brown sends Fanny a valentine as a joke -- well, it's like a 19th-century version of something you'd see on the CW, minus any actual sex.
Given the importance we place on poetry today (which is even less than they did in Keats' time), it's hard to imagine who will want to see this tragic love story. Far be it from me to discourage serious filmmaking -- but this is the kind of thing that gives Masterpiece Theater a reputation for being stuffy. In fact, Masterpiece offerings at least have a bit of life to them, something that's in short supply here.
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