Filming the life of a poet is a tricky thing – if tragic love must be addressed, it can’t be overstressed. In a poet’s romance, we expect – or should I say, fear – that unique lyrics of love will be realized as fiery, misfiring melodramatics. Thankfully, writer-director Jane Campion underplays the scenes, leaving most of the passion as a subtle suggestion. Her visual design is cool, but not chilly. Cinematographer Greig Fraser works in muted tones, thus finely representing the rustic aura of early-19th-century England. It was a time when Enlightenment-style wigs had gone out of fashion, and poets left the coffeehouse to find inspiration in God’s natural gardens. “Bright Star’s” interiors are warm and rustic, and even the woods, with their whitened barks, possess a soft liveliness. The look is rich without any richening.
The life of John Keats, a poet of the English romantic movement, contains a familiar plot: the bright flame snuffed out too young. Dying of consumption – a disease we have since renamed “tuberculosis” – by age 25, Keats made literary history by producing the work of mature genius. In “Bright Star,” Keats (Ben Whishaw) is fading away, while a love interest tries to keep him on. Whishaw embodies the role well, with his small frame suggesting that power once inhabited it.
She is Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish, an unforgettable face), and she touts his literary confidence when they first meet. But her flirtation shows itself soon after, and his financially unworthy status – with his books gathering dust at the bookstore – draws the opposites together. Meanwhile, the Fates are after them, and under this pressure comes the weepy material that Campion, in her trademark style, serves as quiet passion. Like Mira Nair’s “Vanity Fair,” with Resse Witherspoon’s plucky Becky Sharp, this is a film we’ll barely remember years on. But it occupies the present just fine. Masterpieces of literature-to-film are a rare breed; this film falls short with satisfaction.