Review: "Bright Star"

Few films in recent memory have captured emotional nuances of first love quite as well as Jane Campion's Bright Star. Every gesture, every glance, every moment exudes the aching tenderness of young lovers feeling the pang of love for the first time.

It's a rare and impressive feat. Campion does not have the benefit Celine Dion or a soaring, romantic score to transport us into the hearts of 19th century poet John Keats and his paramour, Fanny Brawne. Nor does she need one. In fact, the mournful score by Mark Bradshaw is sparsely minimal. Campion finds her emotion in the silences, the stolen glances, the brushing fingertips, all the moments that most films seem to neglect in their quest for instant gratification.

That's where Bright Star exists, in the in between moments, the whispers and the silences. It is a film of feelings and passions unspoken, trapped beneath the stiff veneer of 19th century mores and fashions.

Period romances of this type often have trouble getting past the sumptuousness of their design. They become so preoccupied with gorgeous costumes and sets that they become lost beneath a mountain of lace and silk brocade. Campion, for the most part, expertly avoids that trap. The language is heightened, but not distractingly so. These are not dusty relics from a history book. Campion has created living, breathing people, with hopes and desires just like us. The film is indeed breathtakingly beautiful, especially Greig Fraser's haunting cinamatography, but it is never just about that. Every frame of Bright Star could be a painting, but this is not some starchy museum piece. Campion's beautiful language, inspired often by Keats' own poetry, is a kind of poetry in itself, in that way that people no longer talk but the world would be a better place if they did.

The romance between Keats and Brawne, while not exactly forbidden, is still hindered by Keats' poverty. He cannot afford to marry her, and in 19th century England, that is the ultimate deal breaker. It is a romance doomed to go nowhere, his pursuit of poetry destined to lead him into debt without any real source of income. It's a story of love overcoming all odds of course. But more than that, its an exploration of feelings, probing the depths of young love in ways that, quite frankly, have not been explored before.

For the most part it is successful. I was more enraptured by the small moments in the film, by how much was said by just silence, the act of listening to a lover's heartbeat, and any number of similar gestures. But by the end, the film begins to lose steam. As John and Fanny are kept apart, and John's illness begins to take over, the film begins to wander. Which, for me at least, hedged the film's emotional impact. There are moments of great and sublime beauty at work here, the scene with the butterfly farm may be one of the most heartbreaking uses of symbolism I have seen all year. The idea of the butterfly, lovely and fragile, living its life to the fullest in three days, before being swept away as quickly as it began.

It's a haunting image. And Campion perfectly captures that fleeting quality of young love, emotionally intense and deeply felt. Even when it wanes, its beauty is nearly unmatched. To quote the film's tagline - "First love burns the brightest," and Bright Star, more so than any film in recent memory, gets that feeling just right.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BRIGHT STAR; Directed by Jane Campion; Stars Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Thomas Sangster, Edie Martin; Rated PG for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking.


TT said…
I was just reading a scathing review of the Twilight: New Moon film in which someone defended the melodrama in blog comments that love unfulfilled can be rather boring. Oh yeah? This has to be one of the most beautiful, interesting, and emotionally engaging films I have ever seen. What fine art can so delicately spin from the hands and minds of true artists...that would be Keats, Campion and her entire production team and cast. This is truly one for the ages.

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