The numerous treasures in “Bright Star” are often difficult to distinguish because they reside in the tender subtleties that must be articulated in an illustration of such an unapologetically simple time. Among other positive qualities, the film does a wonderful job of showing how love makes people extraordinarily selfish, unconcerned of the feelings or opinions of others. The two main characters in “Bright Star” have tunnel vision and the hopes, dreams, and thoughts of the populace are not useful to them, since it does not aid in fanning the flame of passion that drives their unbreakable connection.
Ben Whishaw does tremendous work in attempting to portray the genius of Jon Keats in a way that is somewhat discernable but never fully understandable. At the beginning of the film, the audience is unsure if he loves Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider), Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), or the Brawn family cat more. Geniuses often exhibit these same characteristics. Often their emotional intelligence lags far behind their intellectual abilities. Geniuses often isolate themselves and many times will not have their talents truly admired immediately because of the shock of intimate and previously unseen themes that they uncover. The film states that Jon Keats left this world believing he was a failure, but the feeling is that Fanny always believed he was a success.
Abbie Cornish has the juicier and more outwardly emotional role and is certainly excellent, but Whishaw’s performance is more vital in attempting to express the odd and undying connection that both bounded them together and inspired him to compose timeless poetry. I suppose Paul Schneider plays Mr. Brown the way it was written, but it is nonetheless the biggest flaw in the film because his putrid detestation toward everyone often brings the blossoming love story to a screeching halt. These attitudes are so obvious, ugly, and pervasive that someone would have begun asking questions about the reason for these feelings. At that point, it would not have taken long to uncover his immense sexual attraction to Keats, which is only implied in the film.
The intimate scenes between the two lovers are more exotic and explicit than any sex scene. There are gentle moments such as when he briefly puts his hand underneath the end of the long sleeve of her skirt or when they touch hands on the wall that separates their two rooms that perfectly convey the essence of true love. All of these are a realistic depiction of what a shy, meaningful, real courtship was like in these times and the film rarely steps wrong in demonstrating the tension that goes with being young and in love, hormonal and continuously mannered. There are also times when the film decides to focus on Fanny’s affection for Keats before they have officially begun dating in quiet scenes, such as when she freshens up by looking into a mirror or when she feels the cover of his book of poems, hoping to catch some glimpse into the emotions that may exude something deep about the man.
The final scene that is focused on Fanny walking in the garden with an unfocused male in the background is stunning in both its beauty and significance. The film is eloquently stating that she forever lived with Jon Keats in her thoughts and that they influenced every action. “Bright Star” does not end with this shot, but mistakenly shows a close-up of Fanny. The brief splendor of this scene exhibits the film’s belief that these two individuals felt forever unfulfilled without each other.
Campion focuses intently on the souls of 19th century women in her best films, who often felt powerless in male-dominated societies. “The Piano” focused on two men who coveted the love of a woman but only one understood that this mutual connection was not attainable without the acceptance of her love for the piano. “Bright Star” also has two strong male characters with a female in the center of the story that is the only person with an acute sense of the reality in which they are living. Keats is continuously cold and distant, even in the most poignant moments, and Brown’s feelings are expressed only through hateful speech in place of jealous rage.
“Bright Star” is an extremely well made and often beautiful period piece, but does not quite achieve a complete sense of greatness. It lacks the passion, urgency, and focus of “The Age of Innocence” or the unyielding and tragic romanticism of “The Piano,” but it is relatively effective in accurately evoking a specific time and universe of feeling. The cinematography is often breathtaking and the costumes are appropriate for the period, but the unexplainable passion of the love affair is shown with extreme tenderness and care, understanding that anything more explicit would be inappropriate for the time period and not as erotic for the audience. It has always been my contention that silence, conversation, movement, and eye contact can say more about characters than anything else. This is a truth that “Bright Star” knows exceptionally well.