The most unusual thing about Jane Campion's “Bright Star” is that it's a story about a major historical figure told from the perspective of someone else, herself a comparative unknown. That the figure is the Romantic poet John Keats, and the point of view his romantic interest, opens up the movie to a lot more than a neat way to create a period drama.
Her name is Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a young woman intensely preoccupied by frippery when, in late 1818, her attention is captured by Keats (Ben Wishaw), a physically demure poet living and writing as a guest of her neighbor, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider). The short story, as the movie tells it, is she falls desperately in love with him, realizes they can't get married and forsakes all others anyway, even for some time after his untimely death at 26 from tuberculosis.
In Campion's version these heavy plot points find a soft landing in a gratifyingly relaxed story, measured in the rhythm of a girl's growing fascination and eventual love for a man who would become one of the towering figures in English literature. But Fanny doesn't know that any more than anyone else did at the time. Chief among the movie's many curiosities is that she likes Keats at all, and among its attributes that it takes the time to show her love develop.
Wishaw's Keats — spindly, quiet and given to long stares of deep contemplation — is an anomaly among his gender, and hardly an eligible bachelor. Fanny, imbued by Cornish with an intensely sensuous beauty, is on the contrary quite a catch, adored by numerous suitors. Encountering each other at a ball, Fanny apologizes that her dance card is full, apparently of stout lads in uniform. Keats apologizes for his relief. He isn't the dashing, ball-going type Fanny is used to, or even much of a dancer. Yet she will choose him anyway.
When Fanny first meets him the Brawnes are visiting Brown, and Fanny is sent to take the men a gift. Keats is an unprepossessing figure, living on the generosity of his friend, spending most of his time composing — a state that appears to other mortals like acute lethargy. His work is published but roundly attacked by most critics of the day. He's not a failure, but it looks like he will be.
Poetry certainly doesn't bring Keats any income, at least not the kind he would need to marry a girl like Fanny. Brown disapproves of their budding relationship for this and many other reasons, conniving through a mix of jealously and even less admirable motivation to keep the couple apart. The last blow is Keats' health, his contraction of tuberculosis after it kills his younger brother, Tom. He must move to Rome to try to prolong his life.
Campion reveals these fatal facts subtly and slowly, letting them trickle out as Fanny realizes them, after it's too late and she's already stricken. “Bright Star” has been dismissed by some as gooey romance — the word “canoodling” has raised its pejorative head at least a few times — but the time Fanny and Keats spend in each other's arms is brief even for the handful of months they are allowed to be in love. Its development and admission is patiently achieved and painfully unconsummated.
“Bright Star” comments on Keats' times in passing while lingering in the kinds of details left out of biographies and history books. If the lusher scenes — Fanny's weekend with her sister (Edie Martin) playing with a roomful of butterflies, or her stroll through a field of lilies — don't grate the nerves, it's because they feel like a refuge within the more dire realities of the day, no more belabored but no less acknowledged and understood.
When Keats visits Fanny at Christmas, Campion has by that point brought all the weight of the moment's fleeting singularity with him, along with the resonance of the poem that lends the movie its title. It doesn't appear that Fanny understands Keats' work any more than she can predict the adoration that will greet his poetry after he's gone. But she feels, intensely. Deeper readings can debate the paradoxes inherent in the movie and the poem, but the primary recommendation for the movie is its realization of that feeling and its connection to Keats in a beautiful and poignant film. (PG) 120 min. HHHHH