Movie Review: Bright Star (2009)

Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish in Bright Star

Photo: Apparition

Why do Fanny Brawne and John Keats love each other? They don’t know and don’t worry, Bright Star writer/director Jane Campion isn’t interested in exploring the whys of their relationship as much as she is concerned with boring you stiff with a lifeless melodrama adapted from the private writings of Keats, his poems and Andrew Motion’s biography on the poet. This is a love story beholden to exaggeration and so sappy you can’t get out from underneath it. Of course, being a hit at the Cannes Film Festival and finding fans around the world already, I seem to be relatively alone in this opinion, but it’s my opinion nonetheless.

The film starts off perfectly fine by introducing us to Brawne, played by Abbie Cornish just as I would suspect Charlize Theron would have played the role at that age. Brawne is an avid seamstress that shows an interest in literature, but we will soon learn she is not at all well read. Early on her acidic back-and-forths with Charles Brown, Keats’s friend and co-worker played by Paul Schneider, are a source of some of the film’s finest moments. Brown, as it happens, is the only character not teetering on the edge of self-destruction and the only character of interest outside the family cat and Fanny’s younger sister “Toots” played by Edie Martin.

Ultimately, Keats (Ben Whishaw) becomes the knot in a childish tug-of-war between Brown and Brawne, where his time is valued above all else, be it as a peer or an object of affection. Brawne seeks out Keats to teach her how to read and understand poetry, an exercise that proves worthless, but the moral of this story isn’t that Brawne ever learns how to understand poetry or ever matures as an adult in any way, as much as she learns to understand Keats. It’s that kind of schmaltzy approach that made Bright Star feel more like punishment than any form of entertainment.

For two years of her life, Brawne and Keats are brought together and torn apart. These departures and subsequent reunions result in tears, happiness and bedroom butterfly farms, with the mere mention of the latter stoking the fires of a continued annoyance in the pit of my stomach.

Following the characters’ introductions there is nowhere for this story to go as Campion relies solely on the poetry of Keats to sell the film’s emotional core. Whether Keats and Brawne are finishing each other’s sentences or simply reciting poetry aloud over long walks in the forest, the sap from this material is murky and deep and turned me off completely. The final hour of this two-hour dramaturgy had me looking at my watch every 5-10 minutes, anxious for it all to end. I haven’t experienced a romance that annoyed me this much since 2004’s The Notebook, and I would even say that mess of a film would be more welcome at this point.

Much has been made about Cornish’s performance as Fanny Brawne and she was perfectly fine in my opinion, but nothing to write home about. Then again, that may be because seeing her crying in the corner while surrounded by dead butterflies was just too much for me to handle. Ben Whishaw as Keats is also gaining attention, but to say his quiet performance is anything more than slightly above average is a drastic exaggeration.

Campion’s Bright Star has seemed to enjoy a lot of attention based on the fact it’s very well photographed and the hope the director would return to the form she showed with The Piano. As it stands I would rather watch her abysmal 2003 misfire In the Cut once again, before ever watching this one a second time. What’s even more frustrating is that it’s likely to become a serious Oscar contender, which only fuels my fire.

GRADE: D

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