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Directorspective: Jane Campion


Bright Star




Directed by Jane Campion


Screenplay by Jane Campion

Barbican – Cinema 1

April 24, 2010





A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


This soulful film centring on the two year, first love between 19th century poet John Keats and the girl who lived next door to him for a time, Fanny Brawne is destined to touch you in ways you thought no mere film could possibly do. Based on poet Andrew Motion’s much praised biography, Keats, Campion has chosen to approach this touching story via the angle most comfortable to her, through the eyes of Keat’s young love Fanny Brawne. It is a marvellously imaginative and fitting angle to take, and, in reality, a long over-due one, as I must admit that though I have admired Keat’s poetry since my schooldays and was aware of the fact that he died of consumption at the age of twenty-five, leaving his young fiancée to mourn him, I must admit that I never really gave Fanny Brawne more than a passing thought until I saw this film, and I’m sure many could say the same.

The story opens in Hampstead Village circa 1818 as the Brawne family leave their cottage, the females in long gowns, delicately walking across a field full of washing lines, with white clothes flapping in the breeze. It makes for a charming scene and many comments could be heard in the audience about the look of it, comparing it to the Hampstead of today. Eighteen year old student of fashion Fanny Brawne lives with her mother, younger brother, Samuel and little sister, Toots. Keats and his fellow poet, Charles Armitage Brown have moved into the house next door and the family goes to pay their regards. Although Fanny dislikes the self-important Mr. Brown, she develops an instant interest in 23 year old John Keats, though their initial meeting is very brief. When Fanny reads Keats’ first book of poetry, Endymion, which opens with the eternally fine ‘A Thing of Beauty,’ her fascination begins to grow. Keats, who admittedly, ‘knows nothing about women’ soon develops a crush of his own, and before long, he and Fanny have fallen deeply in love. It is, however, a love that must be kept secret for as long as possible, as Keats has no income and therefore cannot marry.

It is not surprising to learn that Jane Campion once studied Fine Art, as Bright Star is extremely beautiful to behold, beyond painterly in fact, with its achingly lovely seasonal scenes of wildflowers, vivid greens of summer, crisply falling leaves and wintery snow, which move us through the poignantly brief, but rapturous years of love of the film’s young protagonists. Each season seems to have its own atmosphere, with spring bringing happiness, summer – separation, autumn – worry and winter – ultimately, great sorrow and loss. The film’s vividly haunting soundtrack, composed by various musicians is sensitively placed and thankfully, only heard when it would enhance, rather than intrude on scenes. Once you have heard the Human Orchestra’s (Samuel Barnett, Mark Bradshaw, Daniell Johnston, and none other than Ben Whishaw aka John Keats) richly emotive vocal rendering of Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 in B Flat Major K 361 111 Adagio, it will be forever linked to this beautiful film in your mind.  Intense scenes of pure (yes pure) love between Keats and Fanny more often than not, remain unaccompanied by music, being enacted instead in a hush of church like silence, further emphasising Keats’ belief in ‘the holiness of the affections.’

The two leading performers in Bright Star, rightly, viewing their roles as high points in their careers, have as strong cinematic presences in their parts as any actors I’ve seen on screen in recent memory. As eighteen year old Fanny Brawne, Abbie Cornish is, as the Australian actress herself put it in a recent interview: ‘independent, vibrant, sensible, very present and delicate.’ Cornish cited Keats’ poetry as her greatest inspiration when searching for insight into the real Miss Brawne. It is a tribute to Cornish’s focus and talent as an actress and Campion’s open ended, sensitive directing, that their big screen Fanny Brawne comes across as tender- hearted, fiercely steadfast, passionate and, capable of generating much compassion from viewers as the great love of a gifted, but tragically doomed young man, who also happens to be a genius. Keats’ poetic tributes to herform a very moving, lyrical centrepiece to the film. 

Ben Whishaw is touchingly innocent, forthright and tender-hearted as John Keats. Campion claims to have chosen him for the role for, among other reasons, the sense of vulnerability he is capable of conveying. Whishaw, who was Trevor Nunn’s much lauded Hamlet at the Old Vic in 2004, definitely possesses that quality, as well as a richness of delivery that makes listening to his recitation of Keats’ poetry a deeply emotional experience. At the outset, Campion advised Whishaw that he must become ‘an expert’ on Keats, in that it was his duty to learn everything about his life and poetry. Whishaw then set about reading three biographies of Keats, as well as all of his letters and of course, poetry. Considering the number of times Whishaw has been interviewed about his role since the film was released, his director advised him well.

Everyone acting in this film takes their roles to heart, as the eerily unfilmic feeling Bright Star has, achieved via excellent camera work as well as naturalistic acting, blurs the lines between cinema and reality for viewers, as the film was obviously, an ensemble labour of love, with the marvellous Kerry Fox (An Angel at My Table) fully inhabiting her role as Fanny’s warm and fun-loving, but proper mother. Edie Martin is not only adorable, but also very believable as Fanny’s little sister Margaret, fondly referred to as ‘Toots.’ Campion takes artistic advantage of Martin’s shock of curly red hair by allowing the camera to linger on her as she wades through a field of blue flowers. Thomas Sangster also makes a good job of being the only male member of the Brawne family, protectively eying his sister Fanny as she noticeably begins to succumb to the charms of visiting Mr. Keats. Paul Schneider is alternately imposing and covertly envious as Keats’ friend Charles Armitage Brown, a poet who strives, but realises he will never reach the pinnacles his friend has. And though her role is comparatively small, Antonia Campbell-Hill also makes a lingering impression as the Brawne’s young maid, Abigail O’Donaghue, soon to be Brown.

When I came home from the cinema Saturday, I went to the Internet to look up what actually happened between Fanny Brawne and John Keats to see whether Ms. Campion might have deviated from reality. She hadn’t.  As Andrew Motion, who wrote Keats, the biography which served as the basis of this sublime film, was also her advisor, I plan on locating a copy of it soon. For, since seeing Bright Star, I’ve revisited Keat’s poetry with a renewed sense of wonder. If the film rekindles such interest in a subject studied in schooldays and all but forgotten, it’s been more than successful. 

The title of the film is derived from the first line of a sonnet Keats wrote in Spring 1819, which his friend, Joseph Severn, who accompanied him to Italy on doctor’s orders when Keats was dying of consumption, (where it was hoped he might make an eventual recovery), wrongfully took to be his last, when he noticed Keats had written it into Severn’s copy of The Poetical Works of William Shakespeare, opposite the poem ‘A Lover’s Complaint.’  The sonnet was published in 1838, seventeen years after Keats’ untimely death.

I haven’t been this moved by a film since I saw a big screen showing of Franco Zefferelli’s exquisite Romeo & Juliet when I was 15 and dreamed of his young Romeo for an entire summer afterwards. However, despite that youthful passion, I must say that Bright Star is the most memorable film I’ve ever seen not just about John Keats, but about young love in general. The scenes that Abbey Cornish and Ben Whishaw share as Fanny and Keats, seem so true in their own, 19th century, youthful fashion, that they also bring the tragic situation of their characters to life. And, as my companion, a grown up male stated, ‘You forget you’re watching a movie.’ From the feeling of rapt attention all around us, so too did our fellow viewers, who all, effectively, became travellers, sharing the journey of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, and, down to the man, were seen with brimming eyes and/or tears streaming down their cheeks by the end of the film. Which, incidentally, does not end as might be expected.

Spring was John Keats’ favourite season, and the film makes the most of his fondness with tender scenes of young love blossoming in flower filled fields and beneath budding boughs. Spring was also a theme Keats touched on many times in his poetry. If you fear your heart may have inadvertently shifted towards winter somewhere along the way, then see this moving film and feel it reawaken.


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