EW Jane Campion film submits to us the kind of blocked, chaste romance that younger audiences usually only get from vampire films. There are some great kisses. Bright Star—love that Borzage-ish title—is an unusually flowery film from this thorny director. It suggests the troubled relationship of Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish) and the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) as an idyll of hyacinths and daffodils, birdsong and butterflies surrounded by slums; most of it takes place in Hampstead Heath, a few miles and a world away from filthy London. Keats' life is the stuff of doomed romanticism—orphaned by 14, most of the rest of his loved ones dead by 20. Here he is a small, young frail figure, seen in the years 1818–21. He is loved by Fanny, an independent-minded girl who made some money through sewing and design. Campion's steady eye takes in the bizarre (to us) fashions, reminding us of the otherness of the past by introducing her heroine in a crimson stovepipe bonnet—trimmed with what seem to be c***atoo feathers, or perhaps an entire dead c***atoo. "Ye may love in spite of beaver hats," Keats once wrote.Acting as a brake on this romance: Charles Armitage Brown, Keats' friend, fellow poet and self-appointed watchdog. Paul Schneider's salty performance as this ironist matches Keats' poem "Character of Charles Brown." Some of the details of Fanny's life seem vague by comparison: her family's class, for instance. What exactly are the Brawnes, besides ardent bohemians? We stick with them as the poet migrates to a dirty warren in Camden Town and to unseen lodgings on the Isle of Wight. Cornish and Whishaw are attractive tender lovers. Bright Star is refreshed by Campion's use of the oblique angle, her pondering of the strangeness of humans, starting off with a microscopic shot: a close-up of a needle puncturing cloth, which gives the mood of a person sewing a shroud. She seems to wonder at the inexplicable attraction of female to male, despite the risk of imprisonment in love or spiritual dismemberment: "disarticulation" is the word she used in In the Cut, and the word that describes the fate of the heroine in The Piano.
But the sad fact is that poetry read onscreen seems flat, and the better the poetry is, the flatter. Keats was a man ringed by death, contemplating eternity. "Ode on a Grecian Urn," described by Faulkner as a poem worth running your grandmother over for, seeks a vision of stillness in a universe of decay. Looking for real love poetry, Campion has to edit "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (kind of a source for Coraline) to make it sound like delightful fairy love instead of a Halloween ballad of evil enchantment. And Keats lived in a time of ferment, just like ours; his sonnet "Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition" is an anecdote for televangelist-induced nausea. That particular poem and others reveal a side of Keats not seen in the movie—an angry one. Campion's approach is far more interesting than the customary Merchant-Ivory or Jane Austen–industry adaptation. Bright Star has blood and sweetness in it, but the limpid, flower-childish nature of this vision may make some viewers sneeze from the pollen.