Beauty is truth, truth beauty : Bright Star review

by Dieu

20120916-180908.jpg(This film spawned my obsession with Keats, and for poetry by the romantics in general. This is my review…)

Bright Star marks Jane Campion’s return to form with a period film that is delicately beautiful, poetic, haunting and a tribute to the tragic love affair between the poet John Keats and the girl who lived next door, Fanny Brawne.

Set in Regency period England, Bright Star compresses the last three years of Keats life when he fell in love and produced some of his most memorable poetic works, such as Ode to a Nightingale and Bright Star, a poem inspired by his Fanny Brawne.

The film begins when after returning from a walking tour of Scotland with his poet/playwright friend Charles Brown, Keats is invited to share Brown’s half of a summer rental house with him in Hampstead, a town outside London. It is there where Keats meets Fanny Brawne and her family who eventually rent out the other half of the house.

For those who are looking for a film that delves into details of Keats life, you should be advised that this is not a biopic following Keats, but is a story that follows their romance from Fanny’s point of view.

Fanny as played by Abbie Cornish is a stylish, witty and strong willed girl who finds herself drawn to the poet, and to poetry. The romance that blossoms between the two is visualized in the most tender and moving ways. The use of natural light, nature and sparse Baroque-like music evoke the purity of first love. The cinematography is reminiscent of Terrence Malick films, where the visceral beauty of the natural world is captured in long, quiet shots. Some may criticize Bright Star as being an intellectual film, but it is more of a film that needs to be experienced sensually. Like a Keats’ poem, the film is a feast for the senses:

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In a scene where a gentle breeze billows a window curtain, passing in rippling waves over Fanny’s dress as she is lying on her bed, one cannot help but feel how the newness of first love made Fanny sensitive to every touch, taste and feel of the natural world. Moving images like this is enough to make one’s heart ache with the beauty of it, and proves that Campion is a true auteur. Another memorable moment of the film involves Fanny wandering through a field of bluebells while reading one of Keats’ letters to her – the hush quietness of the moment juxtaposed with the tender words and impressionistic landscape will produce for viewers what Keats described as Fanny’s effect on him: a sensation of dissolving. There is also a scene involving a room full of butterflies that would make even the most cynical person swoon.

As well, much of Keats poetry is read by the actors, but the words come out of their mouths naturally. Even lines in the film that do not come from Keats’ poems are often taken right from his letters, such as the line “there is a holiness to the heart’s affections”. For those who are unfamiliar with Keats, the dialogue in Bright Star will surely make you feel the pure joy of experiencing beautiful language, and for those who know all of his poems by heart, it will be like hearing his poetry for the first time.

Bright Star will not appeal to everyone, as it is a languid and slow paced film, but the emotional pay off at the end is worth it. Abbie Cornish is heartbreaking and luminescent as Fanny, while Whishaw manages to show Keats wittiness, seriousness and big heart (and displays his skills with reciting poetry – he has the perfect voice for it). Most notably, like in “The Piano”, Campion elicits a gem of a performance from the child actress who plays Fanny’s sister, Toots.

Although the affair between Keats and Fanny remains chaste and restrained, with plenty of sexual tension, the acting itself is full of vitality and life. Small details of the everyday shine through, the clothes look lived in, and one gets a real sense of being in a specific time and place. This isn’t some stuffy period film that keeps its viewers at a distance, instead we get up close and personal with the characters. It is why while the beauty of the film is both precious and delicate, it also manages to feel natural and modern at the same time.

After watching Bright Star, like after reading a good poem, I felt pure inside, or in Keats words, like I had arrived “at that trembling delicate and snail-horn perception of beauty”.

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