There's a great deal of sweetness in Jane Campion's Bright Star. A painterly interpretation of the romance between Fanny Brawne and John Keats, the film grows from a wealth of tender material. Keats' poetry and the couple's surviving love letters find fitting accompaniment in Campion's will to celebrate beautiful things like seasons, jokes, and Mozart, so that, unlike Campion's other work, this film's primary achievement is tonal. Indeed, the gentleness humming from every aspect of Bright Star allows this simple love story to be endearing instead of a dead bore.
Campion handles her central love triangle with sensitivity, managing tangled passions and resentments among Keats (Ben Whishaw), Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), and Keats' best friend, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). The same emotional intelligence serves Campion's treatment of family; the Brawnes' every move—a door consciously left open or a quiet threat: "Shsh, or I'll cut your hair in the night!"—speaks of the years they've spent together. Campion tempers all relationships with her sense of humor, which is often cute but never precious. Luckily her actors also approach the world and each other with delicate hands. Perhaps the leading example: Edie Martin plays Fanny’s younger sister, Toots, and another one of Campion’s earnest little ladies. Toots keeps actors and characters honest with wide-eyed jokes she doesn't realize are jokes and counters love's vicissitudes by merely sitting near Fanny, stitching or reading in the corner of the frame or just off-screen. Traipsing through 1818 England dressed in bright, calculated ensembles, Abbie Cornish strikes a fine balance among diverse attributes; Fanny Brawne is at once soft in her love, witty in her defense, and visceral in her emotions. Ben Whishaw's Keats spends most of his time lazing on couches, perched in trees, or tidily sitting with a cat. This Keats moves through the world as his words do, gently romancing objects until he wins them over. Even Paul Schneider's brazen Mr. Brown, a vainglorious Scotsman (Schneider's great at this), becomes believably gentle when dealing with his best friend, or grief, or both. DOP Greig Fraser matches these actors' restraint and stands back to let flowers fill his frame and sunlit curtains speak for themselves. It all feels quite lovely and seems an achievement unto itself, to be allowed to soak in all this calm and tenderness.
That being said, I was sharpening my teeth on Campion's career all week, getting ready to sink them into something meatier. A romance featuring John Keats but told from Fanny Brawne's perspective certainly augurs of the feminist texts and subtexts we're used to seeing from Campion, and even the first scene establishes a promising dynamic—Brown disrupts Fanny and Keats' flirting with his physical, emotional, and academic claim, "Men's room. Out!" This becomes somewhat of a mantra for the plaid-suited, heavily-accented Mr. Brown, who resents Fanny as the protector of Keats' genius and the guardian of the male fortress, the study. Fanny fights Brown's self-importance with wit, but Brown is relentless and takes to the sort of mind games of the worst, often male, academic breed. "Did you not find Milton's rhymes pouncing?" Brown snidely asks Fanny, who leaves the conversation thinking she'd proved her literary seriousness, only to find later that Milton has no rhymes. It's no wonder Fanny's repeatedly rendered speechless by such conceit and shallow intellectual competition. While Fanny continues to find her way into the male fortress and Brown carelessly gets a maid pregnant, little else concludes the gendered dynamic between Fanny and Brown. And when Keats gets sick, it becomes strikingly obvious that the movie really is primarily a love story, even if a triangular one. This is disappointing only because the film does such a fine job of setting up something bigger; Brown and Fanny's relationship so expertly articulates the tone of countless coed intellectual spaces that it seems to be begging for a cathartic feminist conclusion. Which seems an apt metaphor for Bright Star's position in Campion's career: disappointingly conservative, and made so only by the mindful feminist triumphs that play out in her previous films. So that in the end Brown and Fanny are both simply, if tragically, widowed by a genius and we are left with a lovely movie, one that admirably stands up for qualities of tenderness and grace, and yet wishing for something more.