I was once a 16 year-old girl and a boy wrote a poem for me. Now, he was no John Keats, but it made me want to go to the school dance with him nonetheless. When I heard that there was going to be a movie, Bright Star, made about the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) and his love affair with Fanny Brawne, I had high hopes. Bright Star, however, didn’t deliver much more than sappy melodrama that ultimately felt like a high school romance.
Bright Star focuses on the three-year relationship of John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). He’s a poet who gets mixed reviews and not enough income to support himself, let alone a wife. She’s a fashion-obsessed flirt who falls in love with him. The financial situation is not enough to keep them apart, but Tuberculosis can. (Sorry, folks, if that was a spoiler, but it’s just history.) Along the way, the audience meets Fanny’s mother and adorable younger siblings, as well as Charles Amitage Brown (Paul Schneider), the somewhat vulgar poet Keats is living and traveling with. My personal favorite character was Topper the cat, who I like to think was an allusion to Keats’s poem “To Mrs. Reynolds’s Cat”.
Although Bright Star has some great moments, for the most part the script is really heavy-handed. For example, Keats writes Fanny a letter about how they are like two butterflies, so, naturally, she starts a butterfly farm in her bedroom while she pines away for him. Then, he writes another letter about how they cannot marry and she is despondent. To top it off, Topper the cat swats and kills a butterfly as he sits next to a sobbing Fanny. Subtle, right? I couldn’t exactly sympathize with Fanny while chuckling at her melodrama. I didn’t find anything about this movie genuinely moving until Fanny’s reaction to the news of Keats’ death (a scene played beautifully by Cornish). I really enjoy Keats’ poetry, but while watching this movie, I often just wanted him to shut up. That was the really sad part.
Visually, Bright Star is very pretty. I love period costumes and Fanny’s talent for sewing provided a lot of eye candy. The outdoor scenes are lovely. Fanny in a purple dress frolicking with Keats through a field of purple flowers or walking through the snow dressed all in black were both especially striking images. Despite the questionable writing of the scene, even the butterfly farm provided some great visuals. If writer/director Jane Campion had kept the film looking this good and subtracted 90 percent of the melodrama from the script, I may have actually loved Bright Star.
They say that not even the best actors can save an awful script. I actually thought the acting in Bright Star was pretty good. As much as the dialogue hurt my ears sometimes, Cornish managed to make Fanny’s grief hurt my heart. My favorite performances came from the supporting cast, Edie Martin as Fanny’s sister “Toots,” Thomas Sangster as her brother Samuel, and Paul Schneider as Brown. The every-day interactions between Fanny and the rest of her family helped even out the dramatic moments of the story and the performances therein were simple, natural, and delightful.
Maybe the problem was that two English teachers went to see a movie about a beloved poet and our expectations were too high. I doubt it though. Bright Star is just plain sappy. I’m rating it 2.5 stars, but if you like poetry, romance, or period pieces, I definitely recommend you rent it when it comes out on DVD. It’s good for a giggle.
Bright Star is playing locally at the Cinema Center on Berry. It was written and directed by Jane Campion and runs 119 minutes. It’s rated PG for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking.