Director Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” the latest of this year’s Cannes selections to be given a theatrical release, is a period film based on the final years of Romantic -literarily and literally – poet John Keats. While the film has received high praise on the festival circuit for its talented actors (Ben Whitshaw and Abby Cornish) and its accurate depiction of an bygone era, and its brilliant cinematography cannot be discounted, “Bright Star” struggles to overcome its overly familiar plot, and is ultimately a better-than-average film, not a stellar one.
Billed as a biopic of the aforementioned poet, the film focuses on Keats and his relationship with Fanny Brawne, the character who ultimately absorbs the majority of the screen time. Though Fanny is initially depicted as a wistful, self-proclaimed “stylista,” she meets Keats and her perspective begins to change. His brooding introspection inspires in her an intense self-discovery as well as a coming of age. They fall in love, and the rest of the film pretty much plays out as you might expect it to; no real major plot surprises.
As already hinted to, the film functions both as romantic and Romantic, in that it is at once your classic Hollywood, lovey-dovey romance while also a depiction of the literary sentiments of the Romantic period. Interestingly, Campion does not depict the two as mutually exclusive; in fact, the film tends to compare them, especially in the way that both emphasize a sensorial experience over an analytical, intellectual one; both are something you feel instead of something you can conceptualize.
Also, both romance and Romance entail a similar struggle. For example, Keats struggles with his literary companion who argues that poetry should be produced through a process of secluded pondering, particularly involving couches, while Keats believes that to capture beauty you must go out and experience life and nature genuinely. Similarly Fanny Brawne is pressured to restrain her feelings for Keats. Her mother insists on their romance’s impropriety – how he is too poor, how she is “already the source of so much gossip.”
These obstacles represent the majority of the film’s conflict as Keats is consistently unsuccessful financially, and Brawne, though indulging her love for Keats in a few brief exchanges of affection, is often left to petting the same cat or woefully touching the wall that connects her room with his. The film’s cinematography also follows Romantic cues in that the film is visually stunning. It is apparent when watching the movie that Campion wanted to create visuals that would capture a sense of what Keats, and other Romanticists, were writing about; the beautiful nuances of nature as well as its inherent fleetingness and transience.
These sentiments are captured expertly through shots of trees in all seasons, shots of butterflies fluttering about in Fanny’s bedroom only to be swept up with a broom moments later, and shots of Fanny’s young siblings playing and laughing in flowered covered fields.
Though visually dense, the film’s romance ultimately feels a little more Hollywood than Victorian, and often comes across as a little cliché and definitely melodramatic. This is the film’s ultimate problem and one that it has issues overcoming, as it does not really break the conventions of the typical Hollywood period romance; there is little here that you have not seen before in films like “Pride and Prejudice” or most other movies starring Kiera Knightley, for that matter. Though a beautiful movie, it is also a boring movie. Though visually poetic, the narrative leaves much to be desired. In this way, the film’s intention may have been its demise; it gives us something to feel, but not quite enough to think about.