By Aaron Mesh
"I'm not sure I have the right feelings toward women," confesses John Keats to the girl next door, Fanny Brawne, as their lowercase romance stirs in the sitting parlors of Bright Star. This is a dangerous admission for the poet to make—not only because he doesn't have a lot of time to dither (what with ceasing upon the midnight and all) but also because the movie is directed by Jane Campion, who has never been inclined to be forgiving to men with the wrong feelings toward women.
You will remember Campion as the director of The Piano, which had some strong opinions about the track record of the male gender. But it turns out Campion has provided the Keats of Bright Star with nothing but the most honorable intentions. Even when Fanny, who is herself highly virtuous, pleads to consummate their relationship before her betrothed sails for the faint hope of an Italian climate, he begs off. In the film's portrait, Keats apparently dies a proud virgin, like a tubercular Tim Tebow.
Bright Star exists at the crossroads of feminist politics and old-fashioned purity. This, it turns out, is an incredibly smoldering place. The film is likely to be admired by English professors and Oscar voters, but mark my words: It is going to become the unequaled favorite movie of evangelical colleges nationwide.
All of this slightly annoys me, but I have to step back and admit Bright Star is very good at what it does. Ben Whishaw doesn't make much of an impression as Keats—he's as wispy as the mustache he never quite manages to grow—but it's Abbie Cornish (Stop-Loss) who does the hard toil here in the role of Fanny. She's the sexual initiator, the smitten pupil and the death-rebuking muse.
It's a tricky role—Fanny has to stand in for all the women shunted to the sidelines by patriarchy, without relinquishing any of her adoration for one man. She balances her characterization midway between wariness and vulnerability, as if she constantly suspects she's being mocked. Her chief antagonist, Keats' BFF Charles Armitage Brown, is played by Paul Schneider (All the Real Girls) with a Scottish burr and a sneering boys'-club jealousy. Brown is saddled with every male defect Campion can write (at one point he gibbers like an ape), but Schneider is a healthy adversary for Cornish, and I found myself wishing Campion would pair them instead.
But that is not the picture we're dealing with. Bright Star's hothouse fervor is sharpened by images that appear intoxicated by the crisp tingle of fall and spring air: the seasons that seem most exquisitely fleeting. Campion's camera jumps to unexpected sights—a sudden snow flurry, the eyes of a small child—and lingers in wonder; it is the closest a movie can come to duplicating the experience of idealizing, youthful love. I don't know if Bright Star is really interested in poetry, but it has the right feelings.