There’s something missing from Bright Star. It’s not talent – as anyone who’s seen Ben Whishaw at work before will know, he’s got broody and interesting down pat. He even managed to shine in the stinker that was Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and pairing him with rising star Abbie Cornish makes for interesting screen chemistry.
It’s not narrative that’s missing, either. Bright Star is based on an old, but good story: boy falls in love with the girl next door, her family disapproves, they endure a heart-rending separation and then he pops his clogs. In this case the boy is poet John Keats, one of the great Romantic poets and a contemporary of Byron and Shelley.
Fanny Brawne (Cornish) was the love of Keats’ life. And in theory, Bright Star is an exquisite, passionate love story, the tale of two star-crossed lovers kept apart and torn apart. The pair met in 1818 – he was 23, she 18 – and she inspired some of his greatest works, one of which gave the film its name. Cornish’s Brawne is fierce and confident with a sparkle in her eye, first indifferent and angry towards Keats, who mocks her penchant for fashion, then intrigued and infatuated, much to the chagrin of her mother (Kerry Fox). Keats has no money, no income and no prospects. He is not a viable suitor. But that’s not going to keep them apart, of course.
This is a gorgeous period piece from Jane Campion, who won an Oscar for writing The Piano. So what’s missing? Anguish. Passion. Campion manages to evoke the elation and devastation of their doomed love affair, but only in brief bursts. There are beautiful images and effective recitations of Keats’ poetry, but Bright Star is just a bit too civilised and graceful, never quite finding its way to the extremes of agony and ecstasy that you might expect. Too much time is devoted to petty everyday details, leaving too little screen-time for the really emotional stuff.
It’s near-impossible to fault the earnest performances, or Campion’s direction, or the exquisite production values. Bright Star is a beautiful film. But in trying to keep things subtle and spare, it loses a little too much in the way of urgency and rage. There’s plenty of fuel here, but sometimes it doesn’t quite catch fire.
EXTRAS ** The documentary Working With Jane (26 minutes); a Behind The Scenes featurette (4 minutes); two Deleted Scenes (2 minutes); a Photo Gallery; and the Theatrical Trailer.