Welcome back to a semi-regular feature on FITI, where I highlight an older film that maybe hasn’t received the cultural attention it deserves. With Jane Campion very much in the current conversation as Power Of The Dog receives awards attention, here’s a film of hers from more than a decade ago that never earned that same acclaim. It’s entirely deserving, IMHO.
Written and Directed by Jane Campion | Adapting a biography by Andrew Motion | 119 min | ▲▲▲▲▲ | VOD
It’s the winter of 1818 in Hampstead, the village north of London. Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is a bold and confident local presence in the community, proudly sharing a fashion-forward approach with her handmade frocks. It’s a way for her to make a living, something most of the local, celebrated male poets aren’t able to accomplish with their words.
Those poets include John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and a temperamental Scot, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), who, being men, are given more sway and attention than Fanny Brawne is.
As winter turns to beautiful spring on the Heath, Brawne and Keats grow close, surrounded by apple blossoms, daffodils, and butterflies. Brown is jealous of the time and care Keats pays to Brawne, and endeavours to complicate their growing and very obvious love affair. Even more complicating is the fact Keats is penniless and cannot marry unless he can support his bride. Brown encourages Keats to scorn this woman to avoid the compromises of marriage on their craft.
Bright Star celebrates this young love while also acknowledging the pitch of melodrama in their lives that is particular to their age. The film welcomes us to chuckle at their fervency but also prompts us to fall in love with them for that selfsame intensity.
This is a picture about youth culture — how 200 years ago the hunger for connection between people was sustained through notes and letters. The written word just as important as it is now, though cherished perhaps longer on paper than social media.
What a joy it is, with all of its parts working in exquisite concert. Campion’s gift for character and storytelling makes this film her very best. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Dune, The Batman) paints with light — a moment of Cornish dressed, lying in bed, dappled with sunshine as the breeze disturbs the edge of her dress and the shear curtains at her feet is one of the single most beautiful visions I can think of in cinema.
Composer Mark Bradshaw (Resistance, You Won’t Be Alone) provides a lovely, unobtrusive soundscape, both modern and thoughtful, while Janet Patterson wears two hats — production design and costume design — helping each character manifest in their environment and clothing.
This while Cornish and Whishaw have never been better, and Schneider is a potent force as Brown — his frustration with and affection for Keats, whose talent he recognizes as a greater than his own, evident in every scene.
Around them are arrayed others in the Brawne household; Fanny’s mother (Kerry Fox), younger brother (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and sister (Edie Martin). Together they remind me a little of Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s delightful take on Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, a loving family always looking out for each other. (And the cat.)
Bright Star brings the same poignant mix of laughs and sincerity, though if you know your history of English literature, steers to a much more heartbreaking conclusion.