The young gentleman might think he has made a capital move by purposely taking his date to see that film about the tubercular Romantic poet whose muse enjoys sewing and butterflies. Quite. But the young gentleman also should be advised to proceed with caution, for the tubercular Romantic poet in question, John Keats, was among the finest of his kind. It is not merely Keats’ series of influentially sensuous odes that this film exists to commemorate, but also his exceptional gift for the art of the love letter--with which the young gentleman, Heaven help him, may yet be invited by his date to compete. Keats died broke and obscure and devoted at 25, by the way; it will be no contest. The beneficiary of those letters, Bright Star reminds us, is Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), literally the girl next door. A skeptic according to her somehow arousingly impassive disposition, she knows fashion--and indeed even makes her own clothes, with taste and visionary flamboyance--but does not know poetry. Yet she registers the immortal lines, such as Keats’ “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” and finds herself intrigued. Eventually, she’ll be called upon to erupt with sorrow at his death, and the power of that moment will be bracing for its forbearance of movie convention. A woman so gorgeous as Cornish in a performance so gorgeous as this is certain to leave the young gentleman feeling beguiled. It is important that he not defeat his own purpose by neglecting his date--most certainly a young lady of sensitivity and intelligence and independence of thought herself, as he would be wise to remember.
Similarly, the young gentleman is cautioned not to fall in love with Keats either. This important ancestor of all wispy tousled emo darlings is well cast with Ben Whishaw, who also recently has portrayed movie versions of Brideshead Revisited’s scandalously self-debauching Sebastian Flyte, plus Bob Dylan and Keith Richards. Here, it is entirely understandable that Keats’ smugly protective friend and Hampstead flat-mate Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider, also terrific) should consider Fanny a rival for the poet’s affection. “Your writing is the finest thing in my life,” Charles tells him once, with such naked, disarming awe that the young gentleman had better prepare himself for a flush of embarrassment.
The writer and director of Bright Star is Jane Campion, whom the young gentleman possibly will recall as the maker of The Piano, a film he may have glimpsed accidentally when much younger and not yet a gentleman, and before that An Angel at My Table, which he shan’t be expected ever to have seen but which did establish that no other living filmmaker better understands how to photograph such romantic atmospherics as cherubic red-headed little girls and moss. Such details, along with blooming flower fields and the aforementioned butterflies, abound in Bright Star--the rare 19th-century period piece that’s ultimately too airy to be stuffy. The young gentleman needn’t even fully comprehend how these things can move him so. He need only have faith in what Keats called "the holiness of the heart's affections," without which surely he will remain a bachelor forever.