Bright Star (Campion, 2009)

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Abbie Cornish as Fannie Brawne

Jane Campion’s Bright Star is a heartfelt, carefully drawn, masterpiece of a love story, It contains all the fire and penetration one would expect from a Campion film, but there is also a surprising–and welcome–tenderness as well. “They were so young,” Campion said of John Keats and Fannie Brawne when introducing the film.

There is a protectiveness that she clearly felt about the love story at the heart of the biography, one that shields the film from the dull hagiography that permeates so many biopics and the more strident polemicizing that gets conflated with passion in some of Campion’s earlier works.

Campion also mentioned that she was not a fan of poetry before she read the biography of Keats that prompted the film. Yet this, too, surprisingly works to the film’s advantage. Brawne is presented as one who only gradually comes to understand and appreciate the poetry, and this allows her to serve as a surrogate for the audience. Not that the film is stingy with Keats’s words–it isn’t. But the work is always subordinated to the soul that produced it. In this, the film is like an anti-Shakespeare in Love, where it is clear that the woman loves the poetry first and the man only for producing it.

As a scholar of literature who has always found the Romantic poets to be more narcissistic and self-indulgent than deep, more about sensation than truth and beauty, I was deeply appreciative of the film’s ability to make me understand the greatness of Keats’s and Brawne’s spirits and not merely their accomplishments.

Jesus said, “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” I’ve never really understood that verse before, and the film doesn’t mention it explicitly (nor honestly, any conventional religious ideas for that that matter), but I feel as though I might have caught a glimpse of the truth at the heart of that verse in a poetic sort of way.

This review originally appeared as part of my coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival at the Christianity Today Movies Blog.

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