Underdeveloped Characters Dull Campion's 'Bright Star'


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John Keats was not always universally admired. When the great Romantic poet took his last breath at the age of 25, he was beset by poverty and convinced of his own failure, victimized as much by the critical dismissal of his works as he was by raging tuberculosis. Yet Keats' poetry was always towering in its vitality, fueled by an inspiring passion. His affair with Fanny Brawne, the subject of New Zealand director Jane Campion's latest film "Bright Star," dominated the last three years of his short life and played a central role in his posthumous ascendency to the zenith of English literature.

At once an old-fashioned romance and a lavish period exercise, "Bright Star" opens on extreme close-ups of needle threading and knitting, actions that suggest the delicacy of human interaction in Campion's universe. It is the autumn of 1818, and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is introduced to John Keats (Ben Whishaw) at a friend's house. Sophisticated and fashion-obsessed, Brawne is at first neutral toward Keats and dismissive of his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Her response to one of Brown's wisecracks makes Keats skip a breath: "My stitching has more merit and admirers than your two scribblings put together. And I can make money from it."

The discrepancy between the would-be lovers is immediately evident: she, the self-assured girl-next-door with a passion for triple-pleated collars, and he, the scraggly dreamer with a penchant for crafting romantic stanzas. Their relationship begins to develop in earnest after Keats' younger brother succumbs to tuberculosis, with Brawne eager to learn the art of poetry. At this point, the film grows curiously languorous despite the powerful screen presences of the two leads. Campion offers insights into her character's feelings but often skirts on their motives, a frustrating quality that plagues an otherwise well-written film. The contrast between Keats' delicacy and Brawne's strength fascinates, yet one wishes their characters were more fully developed for the sake of narrative.

What can and should be praised here is Campion's vivid visual imagination. The filmmaker's attention to detail with respect to period styles and conventions matches Greig Fraser's accomplished cinematography, the latter distinguished by strong colors and contrasts. Together, they paint a convincing portrait of England in the early 19th century, grandiose in its formality and idyllic charm.

The film's structure is a different story. Campion's fascination with creating her own sense of space and time works to a far lesser degree here than in her 1993 Palme d'Or-winning "The Piano," though "Bright Star" is less about story and plot than it is about expressions and emotions. As if by natural force, Brawne and Keats become hopelessly infatuated with one another. Ink flows from pen to paper; days grow eternal before tragedy strikes.

Lushly romantic as it is, "Bright Star" is not so much a product of its historical period than it is a realization of the world painted by Keats in his poetry, a universe of innocent fantasies and powerful emotions. Hardly star-crossed at first, the lovers become impossible to separate; when news of Keats' death in Italy reaches Brawne, we feel his passion through her devastation. "Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath," Keats muses with finality, in words destined to echo throughout the ages, "And so live ever-or else swoon to death." Although its poignant conclusion restores some life into Campion's portrait of her immortal subject, we are still left with a romance that never reaches beyond its own tortured factions.

David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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