Jane Campion’s newest film, “Bright Star,” offers a refreshing portrait of the brief affair between the romantic poet John Keats and his fiancée, Fanny Brawne. Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, working with an excellent script, play the characters of Brawne and Keats with admirable subtlety and attention to detail. Instead of playing the consumptive poet for sympathy and dreaminess, Whishaw presents an energetic young man who teases Brawne and calls her a “minxtress” as easily as he writes her a poem. When Brawne first encounters Keats, she is a bit of a flirt, who has stitched and designed every article of clothing she wears and whose dance card is completely full. Later, however, she turns her sewing skills to a compassionate task and offers Keats an intricately embroidered pillowslip on which to rest his dead brother’s head. In her struggles with social constraints and the force of her own passion, her quarrels with her family and with Keats’ friend Charles Brown, her efforts to cultivate her own poetic sensibilities and her growing respect for Keats’ writing, Cornish’s Fanny Brawne is consistently and wonderfully complex. The filmmaking matches the sensitivity of the script and the performances with a romantic’s sensibility for natural beauty. One of the loveliest moments in the film is the scene in which Brawne and her younger siblings fill their bedroom with butterflies. As Brawne reads her lover’s letters, the butterflies spread their iridescent wings over her neck, her arms, the walls, and the curtains in a beautiful visual evocation of the fleeting, free-spirited love she shares with Keats. The scene ends with a simple shot of the dead butterflies being swept away into the dustpan, a microcosm of the arc of the entire film.
Perhaps the film’s finest achievement is in its conveying a passion for Keats’ poetry. Campion seamlessly weaves lines and entire stanzas into the dialogue, and the actors’ readings imbue the poetry with incredible vigor. Stay until the end of the credits to hear Whishaw’s lovely final reading; it will allow you a moment to reflect on this serious and beautiful love story.