Entomologists revere the butterfly as one of the most stunning phenomena in nature — the homely caterpillar emerges from its chrysalis as a creature of flight. The three-year romance between poet John Keats and high fashion disciple Fanny Brawne portrayed in the film “Bright Star” is as ethereal and beautiful as the life of the butterfly. Just as the caterpillar completes a metamorphosis, the film transforms the public image of John Keats from one confined to bookshelves to one that has swooped intriguingly into pop culture.
Written and directed by Jane Campion (“The Piano”), the film begins with a hand calmly stitching while violin music resonates in the background and the melodic sounds of both a male and female singing voice fill the theater. The film’s subtly sensual beginning suits the poet it portrays, as Keats believed poetry should be experienced through the senses.
Hampstead Village, London in 1818 provides the setting for the film and revives the romanticized image of the English countryside culture composed of rustling satin frocks, fields of swaying lavender and cups of tea sipped from bone china. What began as a social call and basket of biscuits sparks the passionate love affair between John Keats (Ben Whishaw, “Brideshead Revisited”) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish, “Stop-Loss”).
The debt Keats has acquired providing for his sick brother Tom dooms the relationship from the outset. When the Brawne family moves into the adjacent half of the house from Keats and his close friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider, “Drunk History”), Fanny’s coy provocation provides a temptation too great to for Keats to resist.
Fanny serves as the epicenter for the developing chemistry in the film, clashing with Brown and enticing Keats. Fanny, a woman who exudes haute couture, seems almost an anachronism in a century that favors demure simplicity. While the eldest Brawne daughter inspires much gossip among the neighbors, her free spirit allows the contemporary woman to connect with her highly individualistic views making “Bright Star” a modern love story despite its historical setting.
The cinematography perfectly captures the social impossibility of their love. In one scene, Keats strides furiously across a sodden moor, followed by Brown who attempts to pacify him and Brawne who seeks to plead with him. Taken from an aerial perspective, the shot juxtaposes the dark colors worn by Keats and Brown compared with the bright pink worn by Brawne. This contrast casts Brawne as a woman similar to Hester Prynne from “The Scarlet Letter,” causing controversy wherever she walks.
Despite the film’s electric pulse, it strangely lacks physicality. Keats’ determination to have a chaste love affair with Brawne will satisfy only viewers who appreciate patience. The film lacks the overt demonstrations of love audiences have come to expect from Hollywood, the all-too-common “bear-all mentality.” Instead, intimate moments between Keats and Brawne are interrupted further reinforcing the hopelessness of their relationship. But, the sheer rawness of emotion created by Whishaw and Cornish amply fills the void created by the lack of physical contact.
Campion employed much symbolism in “Bright Star” as she no doubt strives for another Academy Award feather to add to her cap already decorated with a Palme d’Or and a Georges Sadoul award among others. Light symbolizes the bright love that burns between Keats and Brawne — the first time Keats and Brawne explicitly touch a fire crackles in the background providing the only sound in the scene. The pain and excitement of first love weaves a cocoon of emotional complexity around the symbols used in the film.
Abbie Cornish shines in her portrayal of the obsessive Franny Brawne. After Keats compares their love to a butterfly in one letter, Fanny transforms her room into a butterfly farm. The iridescent wings of the butterflies as they alight on her clothes and wistful face mirror the vividness of her devotion. The spectrum of emotion she portrays is impressive. At the end of the film, as she grips the banister, the audience realizes the intense pain of unrealized love through her anguished moans.
The three-year romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne captured by “Bright Star” weaves inexorably with the three-day life of a butterfly. Like the butterfly, the film represents the vitality and transience of young love. With costumes that range from haute couture to frocks of patterned elegance, symbolic cinematography and powerful acting, “Bright Star” will surely soar come Oscar season.
4 1/2 stars out of 5.