On a boat to Italy, where he would soon die at the young age of 25, English poet John Keats inscribed a sonnet in his traveling companion's copy of Shakespeare's Poems. It was a poem about love he had left behind in England. The sonnet's first line, "Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art," refers to Keats' beloved Fanny Brawne, and it's also the inspiration for a stunning new film about their star-crossed romance.
Directed by Jane Campion (The Piano), Bright Star is a period piece set around London in 1818-1821, as a brief but passionate romance unfolds between twentysomethings—the not-yet-successful poet Keats and his next-door neighbor Brawne. The two at first don't seem to be a logical pair. Keats, played by Ben Whishaw (I'm Not There), is something of a bohemian, a melancholic writer with ink on his hands, torn ragged jackets, and little money in the bank. Brawne, deftly portrayed by Abbie Cornish (Somersault), is a fashionista girly girl more concerned with fabulous clothes than Homer or Chaucer. She doesn't "get" poetry and would rather dance at a ball. He doesn't dance.
But these differences are no match for the intense youthful love that quickly develops between them, much to the dismay of Keats' best friend Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider with a Scottish accent) who thinks Brawne a dilettante, and Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox), who would rather see her daughter in love with a man with some money. Their love affair is star-crossed from the beginning, to be sure, but it unfolds in so delicate and joyful a manner that we hardly grieve over the knowledge that it will be painfully short-lived due to Keats' struggle with (and eventual death from) tuberculosis.
Bright Star is about the cosmic evanescence of true love. But it's also about art, specifically poetry, and how love serves as a muse. Throughout the film, Keats' poetry shows up in various ways. There are scenes of him writing it and reciting it aloud, or of Keats and Brawne reciting a poem to each other, as in a scene where the couple trades stanzas of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." But his poetry also comes out in the everyday life of the film—in its settings and activities and human moments. If Keats were alive today and made a movie, it might look something like this.
In one of the film's more interesting passages, Keats responds to Brawne's inquiries about the rules and meaning of poetry. What he says seems to capture not just the ethos of Romantic poetry but the philosophy of the film itself:
"A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it's to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery."
And this is exactly how the film itself works. It's not so much about swimming to some shore of happily-ever-after resolution as much as it is about reveling in the wonders and beauties of love's ebb and flow. We don't need a happy ending or a passionate tension-releasing love scene when the film has such a feast of aesthetic brilliance and emotional truth already. It overflows with sensory vitality and satisfying tenderness even while never giving us too much.
In Bright Star, Campion employs a similar Victorian-era restraint to that of The Piano (1993), which was also a deeply sensuous but equally corseted period piece. Bright Star is even more understated (and at PG, more family friendly) than The Piano, but it is equally sweeping, mysterious, and sexy. The most we get are a few kisses between Keats and Brawne, but we hardly even need those. The chaste romance is infused in every frame and costume and set piece of this film. It's an intoxicatingly romantic film that I think Keats would find very favorable.
The love story is one thing, but the romance of Bright Star is also in its visual splendor and all-around loveliness. Cinematographer Greig Fraser does a superb job photographing the pastoral English countryside in all seasons, the life and customs of Regency-era Britain, as well as smaller-scale details like the sensual beauty of hands touching or a needle weaving. This is the feeling of falling in love: lying on a bed as the window curtains flap wistfully in the warm spring breeze; climbing atop a flowering tree and lying between its branches and the sun-filled sky; composing letters to our distant love while sitting at a desk by a window looking out to the sea. We don't need to have heaps of dialogue or sappy soliloquies to know that love is in the air for these characters. We must simply look at the butterflies in the grassy field in the same way these characters do, recognizing that love makes you love others and love things more. It makes you love life.
The film's decidedly poetic existential insights reflect those of Keats himself—things like impermanence, time, love, nature, and beauty. When at the end of his most famous poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (which he wrote during his romance with Brawne), Keats writes "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," he may as well have been describing Bright Star.
This is a beautiful film and a strikingly truthful one, and not because it waxes too philosophic or throws down the intellectual gauntlet. No, it is profound simply because, like a good poem, it takes us to the lake not so we can get to the other side, but that we might luxuriate in the sensation of the water. And in Bright Star, the water feels amazing.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Read "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and reflect on the themes of that poem that also show up in this film.
- How does the way in which the film is made reflect Keats' notion of "luxuriating in the lake"?
- What do you think Keats meant when he wrote, "Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art"? How do you interpret that line in the context of his relationship with Brawne?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Bright Star is rated PG for some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking. The film is refreshingly clean and totally appropriate for families. The romance in the film is thoroughly chaste and sex is only insinuated in reference to one of the other characters getting a maid pregnant. It's a lovely, moving film that people of all ages will find enjoyable, though young children might be bored.
Photos © Apparition
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