Jane Campion’s painstakingly crafted and lachrymose biopic Bright Star, about the mystifying romance between the great John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), begins with an image of a hand stitching. As in The Piano, another metaphoric reverie of love and creation, a woman is defined by what she does—or doesn’t do—with her fingers, but Bright Star is a less astringent feminist statement, for Fanny accepts rather than rejects her domesticated role in 19th-century society, though her pride and cunning defiance of the insidiousness attributed to her motivations by Keats’s friend and fellow poet Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider) is portrayed by Campion as a revolution, albeit a quaint one.
Part of Bright Star‘s intelligence is its lack of hysteria, the almost matter-of-fact way that Campion places her characters on the same level playing field, with Fanny condescending to Charles in much the same manner that he does to her. The film is, at its core, the tale of a ménage à trios, with Fanny ingratiating herself into John’s life to the utter mortification of Charles, who reveres the time he shares with his friend as if they were lovers—or understands their time to be short. Walking into John and Charles’s writing chamber for the first time, Fanny is like a small creature entering a wolf’s cave, though ultimately she seems less afraid of what the pair’s reaction to her intrusion will be than she is curious of the process by which men create.
Through stylish close-ups and breathtaking use of ellipses, Campion contrasts John and Fanny’s work habits, suggesting through a lush filmic vernacular how these two figures were not only fiercely devoted to their work but also kindred spirits. In a key scene, John, who initially comes across as being completely ambivalent toward Fanny, draws a profound comparison between poetry, not just his own, and jumping into water. Something of a cipher, his tortured sense of self is illuminated by this scene and a later one in which he, invited by Fanny’s mother to Christmas dinner, is overcome by daring (behold the great Whishaw’s frantically roving eyes) and decides to quite simply (and erotically) reach across the table and touch Fanny’s hand. Together, these scenes paint John as a man who felt, perhaps neurotically, that in order to survive and be relevant as an artist he had to shun love.
Campion’s beak-nosed actors inhabit the film’s handsome world with ease, as if they were actual transplants from the early part of the 19th century, but her craft, more than ever suggesting Terrence Malick’s own, is prone to purpleness. Fanny’s love is just as immersive as John’s verse, and in some of the film’s more (literally) breathtaking sequences, Fanny is seen to be either high on John’s love or asphyxiated by the lack of it, but during an extended sequence in which Fanny fills her room with butterflies, suggesting the influence of Live’s “Lightning Crashes” music video, Campion indulges in callow imagery to convey how Fanny wallows in self-pity. But even after Fanny has been fully reduced to a martyr, haunting the woods outside the home she briefly shared with John as if she were Catherine from Wuthering Heights, one still relishes Campion’s artistry, warts and all, because of the risks it takes, recalling the wonky, unconventional, and dreamlike beauty of Keats’s verses but also the meticulous stitching of a hem.