Thoughtful ‘Bright Star’ studies doomed poet’s final years

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, September 17, 2009 4:57pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Current meeting of the Dead Poets Society is hereby called to order. Today’s topic: “Bright Star,” a new film bio of John Keats, that wispy poet who loved strongly, died young and left a mighty body of work behind.

Director Jane Campion has focused on the fabled love story between Keats and Fanny Brawne, who knew each other as next-door neighbors and fell in love (in 1818) for the brief maturity of Keats’ life.

Keats is played by Ben Whishaw, the slim actor who had the lead in “Perfume” and played one of the Bob Dylans in “I’m Not There.” Fanny is Abbie Cornish, the talented Aussie actress from “Candy” and “Stop-Loss.”

Around these two, Campion creates a period romance that is traditional in its style but modern in its emotional intensity. The relationship between Keats and Fanny is difficult and unpredictable, and sometimes she occupies the more masculine role of proactive pursuer.

There is a third wheel in all this, Keats’ housemate and literary colleague Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), whose fierce protectiveness toward the frail genius leads to his open hostility toward Fanny. Either that or he’s in love with Keats himself or in love with Fanny or a little of both.

Brown is actually the most intriguing person in the movie and Schneider, an actor who never fails to come up with a fresh approach to a character (lately in “The Assassination of Jesse James” and “Away We Go”), does fascinating work. A fine Scots accent for an American actor, too.

Brown seems to pull the movie away from its central twosome and thus is sort of the villain of the piece. On the other hand, without him, Keats looks unlikely to complete the great works of his prime.

That sort of ambivalence is typical of Campion’s films (including “The Piano” and “Portrait of a Lady”) and she examines it thoughtfully here. It becomes clear that our focus will not be Keats himself, but the people around him. So the sources of his gift remain shrouded in mist.

The film is quiet enough that I confess I sometimes lost why Campion found this material urgent enough to make a movie about. Or perhaps my expectations with this filmmaker were too high, and her sin was delivering a very good movie instead of a great one.

“Bright Star” ends in a novel fashion, with a Keats poem read aloud over the end credits. I took this as Campion’s challenge to the audience to make time for poetry in our lives. The measured, murmuring film is a reminder of the value of spending time in contemplation.

“Bright Star”

The brief but significant romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) gives shape to this study of the poet’s last years. A mild letdown considering the talents of director Jane Campion and the rich subject, but a thoughtful, subtle film nonetheless.

Rated: PG for subject matter

Showing: Guild 45th, Uptown

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