REVIEW: Bright Star

119 Minutes // UK // BBC Films
dir. Jane Campion
Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 – Cineplex Varsity
starring: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw & Paul Schneider

I’ve finally gotten to one of the most critically praised romances of the decade in Jane Campion’s Bright Star. After hearing it was a slow-burning romance from people at TIFF, I had a sense of what to expect coming into this feature.

Bright Star chronicles the coming to intellectual fruition of Fanny (Abbie Cornish), an 18 year old woman who is worried about being stuck in the predestined rut that all women of the time were subject to for no reason other than they’re women. A choice of Campion I’m sure, but the story doesn’t allow for the viewer to get a grasp of Fanny’s issues before meeting poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw).

Within the first five minutes our lead characters meet, humorously banter and the spark that later causes the wide-spread fire of romance occurs. To understand why Fanny is so attracted to Keats is a mystery for the remainder of the film for reasons explained later. On a point, she doesn’t particularly have anything in common with the man of her dreams, so why does she ache for him so? Other than the fact that he treats her as a person where the rest of society presumably doesn’t – you wouldn’t legitimately know if other men in society do not treat her well thanks to the daft and uninformative prelude – there is no real connection between Fanny and Keats.

Slow-burning and intimate without the gratuitous use of nudity and sex to further the plot, the feature relies solely on the interactions between Fanny and Keats to do so. These conversations are filled to the brim with poetic wonders and surrounded with a melancholic aura that certainly entices the viewer more so than if placed in the sterile stasis set for period romances. The glossy dialogue brewed up majorly by Keats almost nullifies the weak characterization laid down for Fanny… almost.

The primary question the film made me ask was “Why? Why does Fanny love him so?”. Campion gives an in-depth examination why Keats would be eternally devoted to Fanny which is easy because he’s a major figure in poetic society. However, she puts pressure on developing Fanny – a woman that many know very little about because she isn’t very documented in time – by having to conjure a back story, characterization to reflect the times and give reason that aptly reflects her love for Keats; almost as if she were a fictional character.

So why does she so earnestly try to reach into Keats’ heart and become apart of his world? The initial attraction of breaking taboo by being with a man who cannot fend for her financially seems too cheap, but it does seem the most impressed upon the audience. Of course, early on Keats loses his younger brother to an illness, so sympathy can play a factor – but can feeling sympathetic for one’s loss completely turn another’s life around and make them infinitely infatuated? This is where the primary stem of detriment is found; seldom is their relationship explained from Fanny’s point of view, and although we do get a keen impression from Keats and why he adorns Fanny, the opposite doesn’t apply and the opposite is much more important because the protagonist is found in this storyline. You see, for Keats there’s the beautiful and boisterous woman who stood by his side and tried so fervently to impress both he and his best friend/poetic colleague Mr. Brown, but on the other end of the spectrum there’s little. He’s slightly mysterious, extremely depressive and speaks in tongues that Fanny doesn’t understand because they’re too difficult to comprehend… for her anyway. So she tries and tries and tries – but why? Alas, this is hardly inquired into. The contrary applies.

The weak attempt at creating a protagonist that differs from her lofty society that looks down on women as solely unintelligent and only made useful to keep a family order in tact. She only finds herself opposite to them in weak ways which make for poor characterization – leaving much to be discussed about the real ambition of Fanny. As mentioned earlier, there are hardly impressionistic moments where one would decide she’s a certain type of person and with this, you witness the unfolding of a fake. In several scenes she studiously wants to progress her intelligence in poetry – but when it’s realized she’s fraudulent in saying so one loses all belief that Fanny is truly trying to learn and rather contemptuous towards any form of education – even if it does entail understanding the man she loves. Why she does this is unfounded and makes slight belief that she’s manipulative with a barren mind and truly uncertain about her purpose while the story demands otherwise. There’s an entire conflict of me witnessing Fanny become a different person where her character seems hardly disturbed at the thought of a first love and is all for it. Too much contradiction comes into play which makes what could have been an easily tangible story one rout with bizarre complications.

Fanny’s society is sexist, but even though Campion attempts to obtain a sense of purity and unseen worldliness in Fanny, the sexist society appears to prevail within her – making her into a woman quite the opposite. In sincerely spouting the line “I don’t read poetry because its too complex”, there is both an aching desire heard that she wants to be more intelligent as well as the sheer ignorance inside her finding its way out through words. If only she didn’t abandon her well-to-do attitude by lying to Mr. Brown about reading the list of poetry by select authors she told Keats, this would be a very admirable and affecting gesture towards the viewer. However, because of the clashing displays, one may be subject to feel confused – this would be fine if the protagonist didn’t appear to be the slightest baffled by these situations. Especially considering she laughs way of the camera with her younger brother Thomas (Thomas Sangster) about neglecting to read the material she proclaimed she did.

Even with the languid characterization of Fanny, the film finds solace in Keats and Mr. Brown – two very well developed characters. On occasion, Fanny even appears to be taught – especially in her more emotional scenes that sadly find themselves hit or miss on the youthful Abbie Cornish. The three primary actors effectively demonstrate the material they’ve given at the highest caliber – and their performances only build momentum and value as the story progresses. For every nimble breakdown Cornish displays on screen, there’s one that appears completely outlandish and uncalled for – her performance reflects her character in terms of weariness. However, Whishaw and Schneider immerse themselves in their respective characters so seamlessly that its nearly impossible to dislike the product with these two being showcased. Paul Schneider particularly impresses in the latter stages of the film and delivers what is indisputably the best scene of acting the feature has to offer. Even Cornish finds herself in more of a comfort zone with the males present – speaking more fluidly and passionately than left alone.

Even with my distaste for the poor characterization found in the protagonist and finding the score to be overly unnecessary (where most lavish it) – I cannot keep from merging emotionally with the film and having my gaze widened by the beautiful design of the feature. Saddened love is seldom come by in films nowadays – or if they do, they must end happily ever after – so to not be compelled by such a patient focus and reserved performances. Jane Campion derails commonplace romance with her throwback to Shakespeare with this films peculiar structure and drearily deep theme.

If the colors muted and the score lost, Bright Star would pass for a depressive romance made in the Golden Age of cinema with few nuances. Campion efficacious produces an innocent and endearing tale of fervid passion without stepping into unnecessary boundaries. Both a masterclass in effectively showcasing how one can become attached to another, while demonstrating the “what not to dos” in creating a romantic lead. A confused product, but one I found advantageous nonetheless. [7/10]

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