(directed by Jane Campion, 2009)
Even as a self-consciously angsty teenager I never got into Keats or, indeed, the rest of the Romantic poets. When I needed romance or torment, I turned to Shakespeare. But tonight, for the first time in my life, I wish I had a proper book of Keats’s poetry. Bright Star is one of those rare films which didn’t really grip me at the beginning, but which grew on me throughout. Now that it’s finished I’m sitting in silence in a lamplit room, watching this year’s second snow fall in dark London streets. I am almost afraid to do anything, lest it shatter the mood.
I’m glad I didn’t see Bright Star at the cinema. It’s a very intimate film, a chamber-piece, and I don’t think it would have worked its magic on me in a big auditorium. Jane Campion’s direction is luxuriant and languid, emphasising the natural. Her camera revels in images of trees and long grasses and the beauties of Hampstead Heath. Something about the blend of images and the measured pace reminded me several times of Terence Malick’s The New World, of which I think very highly, as you may remember from my comments on The Tree of Life.
The heart of Bright Star, of course, is the relationship between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his next-door-neighbour, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). I think this was the thing which I didn’t initially grasp. My first impressions of Fanny were far from favourable and I found her to be rather superficial and supercilious. As time went on, and I saw more of the character beyond the eccentric collars and enormous bonnets (are those really historically accurate?), I warmed to her of course. This was not a fault in the acting, I hasten to add, simply a feeling of slight disorientation as thought I’d been dropped into a party where lots of people I didn’t know were talking very fast, and it took me a while to catch up.
A film like this is made or broken by the actors of its key roles, but Bright Star is in safe hands. Ben Whishaw was predictably excellent. He won me over in Perfume, and in Bright Star he was similarly compelling. He acted not just with his body, but with his eyes: they fascinated me, darting to and fro when he was thinking up his poetry, or moving more slowly, more shyly, when courting Fanny. I have to admit that he is one of the actors of my generation whom I most admire, and that’s without having seen him in very much. I would have loved to see his acclaimed Hamlet in 2004.
As Fanny, Abbie Cornish refreshingly shattered the Jane Austen mould of demure Regency heroines: she was feisty, opinionated and thoroughly in control both of herself and her own family. There were points where she felt too modern for her context and I could hardly believe the degree of freedom Fanny was afforded; but it is clear that her mother ran quite a liberal household. It can’t be easy acting against Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish deserves a lot of credit for creating a character whom you can empathise with, without necessarily liking. I found Fanny to be self-centred and still quite childishly demanding, but these defects added to the complexity and richness of the character.
I’m still caught up in the feel of this film, and I can’t convey that to you by analysing the acting or the direction or anything else of that nature. I have to talk about my emotional reaction to it. There’s no doubt that this is one of the most touching and believable depictions of first love I’ve seen on film for a long time. It sweeps you up into the joy and down into the unbearable anguish. Whishaw and Cornish manage to convey the sweetness of their romance without making it mawkish, thank goodness.
And, at the end, Abbie Cornish gave one of the most gut-wrenchingly believable performances of agonised grief that I have ever seen. This wasn’t picturesque screen crying. No; this was the kind of crying that sounds as if your entire world is being ripped out through your throat. My God; what a scene. By the end of it, I was in tears myself.