Directed by Jane Campion
Released September 16, 2009
Tales of lovelorn women stranded in olden times, unable to realize their true passion with the men they so desire, aren’t sparse these days. Over the past few years, films like "The Duchess," "Becoming Jane," and "Pride & Prejudice" have probed the stories of women far ahead of their time who seek to marry for love instead of merely money or power. While these films are often based on truth, they run the risk of all blending together and appearing to be the same. The new film by Academy Award-winner Jane Campion is just that kind of movie, but fortunately it stands apart from the pack due to an unexpected sense of humor and a fantastic lead performance by the wonderful Abbie Cornish.
Bright Star is about a poet, and it’s fitting therefore that Campion weaves a poetic narrative about a woman who falls in love with creativity. The story is based on the short life of the legendary Romantic poet John Keats, and the love letters exchanged between him and his muse Fanny Brawne. The movie isn’t primarily about Keats, however. This is the story of Fanny, and how she sought to immerse herself in the world of poetry and literature while everyone else told her to be content doing little in her comfortable life other than sewing. The title references a sonnet written by Keats, and the film’s tagline suggests “first love burns brightest.” Keats may only have lived until the age of 25, but what he shared with Brawne was deep and meaningful, and it’s implied that their love was something that presumably stuck with Brawne for the whole of her considerably lengthier life.
Brawne is made magnificently three-dimensional by the performance of rising star Abbie Cornish. Until now, Cornish’s credits have included scene-stealing small parts in "A Good Year," "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," and "Stop-Loss." This is Cornish’s first chance to take on a leading role, and she’s a revelation. She’s hardly the typical romantic lead, not quite as obviously aesthetically pleasing as Keira Knightley or as utterly charming as Anne Hathaway. What she possesses that those more common choices lack is a startling ability to be scornful and sarcastic while still seducing all those around her. The chemistry she has with costar Ben Wishaw, who plays Keats, is mostly unspoken and almost entirely implied, and Cornish takes on the brunt of the relationship with her ambitious efforts to improve the joy in Brawne’s life. Paul Schneider, known for his dramatic contributions to films like "The Assassination of Jesse James" and "Lars and the Real Girl," shows his funnier side as the irritable Irish foil to Brawne who wants Keats all to himself. The three form a fantastic love triangle far more entertaining than might be expected for a period piece. In short, it comes alive and seems just as relevant as a modern-day tragic love story. It’s impressive early on, but unfortunately drags on and loses some of its magic. Fortunately, Cornish’s excellent performance doesn’t ever lose its fire and more than keeps the film engaging.
Please note: a version of this review was originally published in the Washington Square News.
Friday, September 18, 2009