By By Noah Redfield, Staff Writer
On the outside, Jane Campion's "Bright Star" looks like yet another lifeless costume drama with a host of performers begging for awards as the Oscar season draws nearer with every passing day. Luckily, although the film will doubtlessly be show¬ered with trophies for the costumes since Hollywood only ever notices the out¬fits when there is a corset involved, the John Keats biopic is far more inter¬esting than the premise suggests.
Ben Whishaw plays the Romantic poet in ques¬tion who falls in love with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), who is quite literally the girl next door. Rather than stare wistfully at flowers or swoon at will whenever our scribe so much as breathes next to her, Fanny is a woman driven by passion and individuality. She express¬es herself within the constraints of 19th century England through the art of knitting, and as her rela¬tionship with Keats begins to blossom, they discover that they need each other not only as lovers but cru¬cially as muses.
Costume dramas have a bad reputation primarily because most filmmak¬ers in the genre are more interested in what the characters are wearing than what they are actu¬ally doing, but this film is different. The setting takes a back seat to the relationship of the leads, and the outfits and sets rarely draw attention to themselves. If any¬thing, the most striking moments occur when the lovers are surrounded by the landscape of the English countryside, its natural beauty beaming through the screen.
The work of John Keats is marked by its intimacy, its undying adoration for the simpler moments in life through his sensual use of language. Campion imbues her film with his writing style and lets it bleed into the structure as well as the atmosphere. Scenes often end abruptly and transition into a com¬pletely different moment, both tonally and from the perspective of the narra¬tive. But this is the point. Watching somebody write isn't particularly cin¬ematic, and the best way to approach his or her work is to give the viewer a full sense of the writer's vision. Similarly, the love affair is conveyed without resorting to melodramatic sets or gratuitous sex scenes (indeed a relief for those who saw Campion's "The Piano," which revealed more of Harvey Keitel than anyone ever wanted to see.) The result is the closest thing to cin¬ematic poetry on release at the moment. It is also the closest representation of what a John Keats film would probably look like.
The celluloid stanzas don't quite hold together at times, mainly due to the film's uneven cast. Whishaw plays Keats like the frontman of an unsigned band of hipsters who is simply too cool and mysterious for some¬thing as passé as emotion. Paul Schneider, who plays Keats' unsympathetic friend Charles Armitage Brown, is mannered on the level of above-aver¬age high school acting, and his Scottish brogue is even worse. On the other hand, Ms. Cornish is a sight to behold with a searing performance that burns a passage into your soul, often entirely through movement and body language.
But despite some prob¬lematic players and the odd languid passage towards the end, "Bright Star" is a haunting and arresting portrait of one of the finest poets of the English language that all aspiring poets should see. It is also that rare thing of a love story that truly has a heart and doesn't need to display it throbbing in pornographic detail at every turn. While they might not be the most riv¬eting works of art, films that revel in the quiet beauty of the world are still a joy forever.