Writer/Director Jane Campion is known for her strong female characters, and one element that seems almost consistently involved in the development of her protagonists is sexuality. Yet in Bright Star, her newest film, she explores the most romantic topic she’s handled yet—the love affair between Romantic poet John Keats and next-door neighbor Fanny Brawne—and each moment of it is remarkably chaste; as such, it’s hot stuff. Perhaps it’s the overpowering sense of longing that contributes to the film’s charge—longing is romantic, above all else. The spare set decoration and ample space she offered her actors contribute to fluctuating feelings of quietude and unpredictability. Campion wrote the script for Bright Star based on journals and letters sent between Keats, Brawne and their relations. She says, “I feel my job is to serve this story I’ve fallen in love with. This one broke my heart when I read it. I found it so innocent and pure.”
Unlike other Romantic poets, John Keats wasn’t from a family of wealth; his consorts supported and sponsored him. When he came down with tuberculosis, his deteriorating health made him a concern for his social and financial network, and of course his condition threatened—and therefore intensified—his romance with Brawne. The story is “broader about love because it includes her (Brawne’s) family.” Referring to the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice Campion continued, “This isn’t showing the Mrs. Bennet we continually see. Brawne’s family can help her get through the crisis at the end.”
Campion’s drama is the stuff of dreams, surprisingly rooted in the stuff of cinematic cliché. The romantic poets and the era that housed them are favorite studies for period pieces and understandably so: it’s a lovely time for which we have nostalgia, even though none of us were there. What Campion does in her film is depict the moments of first love, those that are typically the province of both romantic text and bad junior high poetry, as if they were the newest, most alien occurrences imaginable. It’s so startling; you’re compelled to ask, “How can this be?” Meanwhile you hope for things: the first kiss, the awareness of bodies in neighboring rooms, the sound of reeds whispering as the couple sneaks away. We are sensitized to everything in this world, just as Keats (played by a waifish and charismatic Ben Whishaw) and Brawne (languidly embodied by Abbie Cornish) negotiate their very pragmatic social worlds and their fantastically impractical desires. Love, we can’t ever forget, is so very inconvenient.
Campion, the only woman to ever win Cannes’ Palme D’Or and one of only a handful of women to be nominated for a best direction Oscar, demonstrates the deeper aspects of her characters in strikingly simple and lucid terms. She says that first love is often complicated and misbegotten. “When people fall in love they merge their identities. When you fall in love for the first time it seems like a great idea.
‘Why not lose myself in the other? Never liked myself much anyway.’
And then it becomes a terrible situation where something goes wrong and you have to try and reestablish your identity without the great love affair. Painful business. They (Brawne and Keats) had to do that because he wasn’t gonna live.” Wistfully, she lets out, remembering her own love affair with the characters and their romance, “I thought it was a pretty special story.”