Jane Campion’s love letter to the brief but passionate romance between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) does its best to combat the inherent limitations of the biopic genre, breathing life into characters whose unfortunate fates are known from the get-go. Much of the credit goes to Cornish (hey, Academy, where’s the nomination?), whose feisty, full-blooded performance brings heat to a love story free of bare flesh and titillating talk.
Keats, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of 25, was a penniless poet who only posthumously would become one of the most revered writers of the Romantic Movement. Brawne, a headstrong young woman from a relatively well-off family, was a fashion aficionado who often crafted her own elaborate outfits. While the era’s class-related mores — not to mention Keats’ poet buddy Charles Armitage Brown (an amusing Paul Schneider), who urged him to focus on his work — kept them apart in terms of marriage, nothing could thwart a relationship that only grew stronger after Keats left in an effort to improve his financial standing. The fact that his poetry couldn’t generate a sufficient living and ultimately led to his health-related downfall only heightens their story’s cruel irony.
The most curious aspect of this affecting film is the relatively straightforward manner with which Campion presents the material. This is the same daring filmmaker who gave us Sweetie, The Piano, Holy Smoke and the similarly themed (and vastly underrated) The Portrait of a Lady? Even a flawed effort like In the Cut seems the work of a restless artist never content to play it safe.
Campion said in a recent interview that she’s probably more of a classicist than her previous work might lead one to believe. Or maybe she’s constrained by Bright Star’s conventional biopic narrative arc: The film peaks when our lovers finally admit their feelings for each other, leaving us (and them) to wallow in the film’s protracted, doom-ridden final third.
Sony’s DVD release is oddly bare bones, offering but a brief interview with Campion and one deleted scene. Odder still is the lack of a Blu-ray release, an unfortunate oversight that mirrors Bright Star’s nearly nonexistent awards-season love. Grade: B