Grand-scale pining is best left to literature, or maybe the three-minute pop song. When you dramatize and stretch the yearning to feature length, however—well, one man’s woe is too often the audience’s tedium. Dress it up with Victorian garb and the King’s English, and many viewers will snooze before they even get the chance to cry.
We’ve recently been offered such ornate inertia in Stephen Frears’ unbearable Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle, Chéri; now, writer-director Jane Campion is offering a similar if significantly superior portrait of lost love in Bright Star, a story about John Keats’ last days. That’s not to say the two-hour film doesn’t lag—but with a strong heroine, a memorable supporting cast, and an attraction between the two central lovers that’s more palpable than breathless line readings, it’s certainly more interesting.
Bright Star focuses on Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a seamstress and fashion designer whose family lives next door to Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his fellow struggling poet/mentor, Charles Armitage Brown (indie staple Paul Schneider, with an episodic Scottish accent). Fanny and the boorish Brown can’t stand to be in the same room together, and she likewise acts coolly when she meets Keats, who is tending to his sick brother. But Fanny is touched by Keats’ devotion to his brother and sends her younger siblings (Thomas Sangster and Edie Martin) to buy his collection of poems “to see if he’s an idiot or not.” Fanny isn’t wowed by Keats’ writing but doesn’t hate it, either—and combined with his wavy, dark hair and swoony eyes, it’s enough for her to fall hard.
Their early days of courtship are Bright Star’s better half. This being 1818, flirtation comprises little more than clever banter and flirty looks, both of which Cornish and Whishaw load with new-love butterflies. (The first kiss? Wow.) That they’re in love, though, sometimes seems to be the extent of their identities: Keats’ poetry is recited, but often so quickly it’s difficult to grasp its beauty or glean his budding talent. (And when the two passionately trade his lines—which happens more than once—it gets to be gag-inducing.) Fanny, meanwhile, invariably comes across as a wannabe Elizabeth Bennett; Cornish has a terrific, handsome presence and largely manages to adore and ache without histrionics. But Fanny’s bundle of wit, one-liners, and fierce independence is too familiar to make the character feel original.
And when the relationship hits some roadblocks—first Keats’ lengthy vacation with Brown and later the illness that would kill him—the film feels like Twilight disguised in frills. Fanny is so devastated by Keats’ absence that she’s bedridden for days! He curses her for enchanting him so, and asks her to kiss the words she sends him! And on and on. Eventually, even Campion’s repeated shots of wildflower fields grate. The portrayal of a love affair can be saved from gooeyness by intriguing characters and great chemistry. But pull them apart—and dedicate half of a film to moping and letter-writing—and the emotion becomes told instead of shown.