Here’s the deal: Either you’re the kind of person who’s going to get excited by a movie about the chaste romance between 19th-century poet John Keats and the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, or you’re not. Let me confess right up front that I am not. Lifestyles of the Dead and Famous isn’t a genre that much appeals to me, mostly because of the way that historical accuracy tends to stifle creativity. For those who dig that sort of thing, however, Bright Star, the first movie in six years directed by Jane Campion (The Piano), does it about as well as it can be done.
Given Campion’s bizarre, hyper-stylized take on Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady back in 1996, the most surprising thing about Bright Star is how utterly BBC-conventional it is. Ben Whishaw coughs up a storm as the consumptive Keats, while Abbie Cornish, playing Ms. Brawne, alternates between fierce and frail as the tale and 21st-century post-feminism demand. Their tender, unconsummated relationship is pretty much what you’d expect—tremulous, quietly impassioned, self-consciously doomed—and the film as a whole is handsome, intelligent and tasteful to a fault, with no trace of the neo-Gothic fervor that made The Piano such a singular period drama.
What gives Bright Star an occasional shot of unexpected adrenaline is the hilariously gruff performance of Paul Schneider, a rather goofy American actor who’s been oddly but brilliantly cast as Keats’ contemporary and best friend, Charles Armitage Brown. Spitting out his dialogue in a credible Scottish brogue, Schneider often seems to be contemptuous not just of Keats’ dalliance with Brawne, whom he sees as little more than a distraction from his buddy’s genius, but also of the rather staid film in which he’s been inexplicably trapped. For those of us not inclined to swoon when Fanny picks up a copy of Endymion and caresses the opening lines with her tongue, he’s a spectacular distraction of his own.