The film centers on John Keats, the great romantic poet, through the eyes of his love and inspiration – Fanny Brawne, the stylish, headstrong girl next door. Inspired by the actual love letters between the couple and Keats’ sublime poetry, Bright Star will reveal a great untold love story from the heart of one of literature’s most treasured and tragic figures. The intense but doomed relationship produced some of the most beautiful verse and passionate letters ever written. The focus on the impetuous Fanny and her relationship with Keats makes for an intimate and lively story rather than an emotionally removed historical retelling.


CANNES: Jane Campion’s Bright Star has probably been the 2009 Cannes film festival’s most anticipated film. After a lengthy sabbatical from features, would the former Palme D’Or winner return in top form sixteen years following her triumphant and dramatic exit from the Riviera in 1993 as the first female winner of the coveted prize? Or would this movie follow the vein of what most critics regard as lesser, flawed subsequent works such as Holy Smoke and In The Cut?

Would the romantic sensual impulse that fuelled her strongest films (An Angel at My Table, Portrait of a Lady, and especially The Piano), still be a driving force for the now more mature auteur? If so, would Campion’s depiction of the price that women pay for passion, still be as profoundly poignant? There were a lot of questions to be asked.

Campion fans can rest assured. Not only has she retained her romantic impulse, but in Bright Star she has fused it with a celebration of the power of art (in this case, poetry), and created a potent, pure, (if somewhat idealised), homage to both.

The very subject matter naturally lends itself to a romantic celebration: the intense, tragic three-year love affair between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) – one of the greatest Romantic poets in the English language – and his Hampstead neighbour Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Theirs was a romance thwarted in its prime by external obstacles and Campion’s depiction is instilled with the tragic dimensions of great art.

As in her other vintage works, performance, mapped and-fine tuned by a superb script, heightened here by the actual language of Keats’ poetry and underscored by Mark Bradhsaw’s unusually haunting score, become the road map to the movie’s core. As the story moves from detachment to mild interest to growing attachment and tenderness, Fanny becomes our compass to the soul of the sensitive poet. Her growing interest, discovery of and involvement in his poetry takes us, too, on a journey of discovery.

One of Campion’s strong instincts is casting and she doesn’t put a foot wrong here. It’s a brilliant ensemble simultaneously buoyed by some outstanding individual performances. The slightly rumpled Whishaw creates an affable, sensitive, intense but witty Keats, talented yet in his love life, with an edge of boyish naivete. Kerry Fox as Fanny’s mother peels parental objection to reveal a deep compassion; Edie Martin as Toots, her youngest daughter/Fanny’s sister brings welcome comedy, virtually stealing every scene she’s in.

But unquestionably, it’s Abbie Cornish who emerges as the film’s astonishing discovery. Since her debut here in 2003 in Un Certain Regard, in Cate Shortland’s Somersault, she has been marked as an upcoming talent, consolidated by subsequent turns in Neil Armfield’s Candy and other movies. But Campion – as she has with so many other actors in the past – lifts Cornish’s performance to another level. Her journey from flamboyant coquette to impassioned altruist is unsentimental, conveyed with a mix of quiet but steely understatement and compassionate tenderness that is likely to catapult her from talented starlet to thespian top league. She certainly deserves to be one of the top contenders here and all the way to the Oscars.

Avoiding the clichés of period films, Campion and her long-time collaborator, art director /costume designer, Janet Patterson (whose work on The Piano was inspirational) create potent iconic visual metaphors to subliminally echo the film’s connotations.

For Fanny, sewing is a central image and thread of the film; established by the extreme close up at its outset. But the light-coloured thread darkens with the movie’s progress until it finally turns to black. Similarly, Patterson shifts the ambience through the language of clothes, particularly in the case of Fanny. The flamboyant bright reds and whites of the early scenes morph into simple muted tones as her inner life becomes more enriched by her love.

Australian cinematographer, Greig Fraser, a former art photographer, whose work has showcased at Cannes in Short Film Palme D’Or winner, Glendyn Ivin’s Cracker Bag and Tony Krawitz’s Directors’ fortnight short, Jewboy, has worked with Campion on the 60th Cannes anniversary short, The Lady Bug and United Nations Shorts project, the Water Diary.

They create here, under the name of simplicity, an exquisite interplay of dark/light, interiors/exteriors, seasonal contrasts that is provides an arresting artistry. The last wintry scenes in Italy contrast with the summery seasonal verve at the height of the romance.

If Campion intended to inspire an appreciation and rediscovery of Keats’ poetry, she has not only succeeded but herself created an artistic monument to his life, love, poetry and soul. And with the casting has re-invented Keats for new generations.

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1 hour 59 min
In Cinemas 26 December 2009,
Tue, 06/01/2010 - 11