Set in the bucolic suburbs of early-19th-century London, as fresh and dewy as a newly mowed lawn, Jane Campion’s Bright Star recounts the love affair between a tubercular young poet and the fashionable teenager next door. It’s more conventionally romantic than wildly Romantic—but no less touching for that.
Fanny Brawne (Australian actress Abbie Cornish) is a self-assured, imperious girl who makes her entrance in a dress of her own design, accessorized with a bright red, yellow-plumed stovepipe hat. Lippy as well as eye-catching, she immediately gets sassy with the self-important scribblers, John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), who rent the house across the way. Brown, an irascible, hairy Scot in hideous checked trousers, will be her rival for the attentions of Keats, whom, as Fanny discovers, is not only good-looking and sensitive but also the greatest unknown writer in England.
Still, it initially seems as if Bright Star might be about a girl genius. Fanny is, as she informs the poets, a creative personality in her own right and more successful than they are. (Did she really invent the pleated skirt, the triple-petal mushroom collar, DIY fashion?) Her outfits are invariably conceptual works of art, while the unimaginative writers always wear the same dreary thing—the girl’s interest in Keats is signaled when she opines that he would look well in blue velvet.
As played by Whishaw (Keith Richards in a 2005 Rolling Stones biopic and the most poetical of Dylan’s avatars in I’m Not There), Keats is clearly a proto–rock star—driven, yet lovable, and always attuned to himself. Mr. Keats and Miss Brawne make a fabulous couple: It’s a pleasure to watch and, for the most part, listen to them. Her emphatically smooth brow and his artfully tousled hair seem designed to counterpoint the turbulence beneath their restraint. This emotional turmoil is evident in Keats’s famously jealous love letters but, Fanny’s competition with Brown aside, it is mainly manifested here in material problems. Keats’s lack of professional prospects and poor health ensure that these super-adolescent lovers can never marry and thus consummate their love.
Keats argued against an art founded on certainty. However, Bright Star has little interest in mystery—or even ambivalence. Keats’s involvement with Fanny churned up all manner of demons, including the witchy femmes fatale of “Lamia” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” But when, late in the movie, Campion has the couple quote the latter to each other in precise call-and-response, rather than in a fevered outburst of erotic obsession, it becomes a decorous meditation on mortality.
Campion’s self-contained Fanny is hardly the manic minx that Keats described in a letter to his brother: “Her shape is very graceful and so are her movements. . . . She is not seventeen—but she is ignorant—monstrous in her behavior flying out in all directions.” The poet deemed the disturbing Miss Brawne “beautiful and elegant,” yet “silly, fashionable, and strange.” That could describe some of Campion’s earlier films—Sweetie, Holy Smoke!, even her perversely skewed Henry James adaptation, Portrait of a Lady—but not Bright Star. There’s no weirdness here, despite the jarringly humid sensuality of the scene in which a lovesick Fanny transforms her bedroom into a butterfly terrarium.
Bright Star is a movie of few discords, least of all in Mark Bradshaw’s faux-Baroque score. England 1818 seems like a Fragonard garden, the pastoral height of civilization. Conversation is witty; summer feels eternal. Zephyrs cool the heat, and classical compositions are animated by the adorable little girl (adorably named Toots) who dances attendance on the lovers. Their passion is both impossibly mad and hopelessly bourgeois—and as artfully turned-out as one of Fanny’s outfits.
Bright Star, which might have been adapted from the Jane Austen novel that Emily Brontë never wrote, creates its own hermetic world. The requisite end titles suggest that Fanny consecrated her life to Keats’s memory; in fact, she married and had three children who eventually became rich on the sale of the letters she sensibly saved. Shadowed by the knowledge of love’s evanescence, this is a movie of undeniable pathos. But that does not make it sublime.