Romantic poets famously die romantically, and young. Witness John Keats, a virgin dead at twenty-five beside Rome’s de rigueur Spanish Steps and now the subject of Jane Campion’s reconstruction. Bright Star is titled from a sonnet written in either 1819 or else the following autumn on a desperation voyage to Italy.
Taking a cue from the poems -- only fifty-four were published during his lifetime -- and letters, and too often voicing them over the reader’s or writer’s face, the Wellington director-writer does the love story of Ben Wishaw’s Keats and his landlady’s daughter, Frances “Fanny” Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Presumably drawing on the woman’s letters to her lover’s sister protesting assertions she was only a heartless flirt, the plot does not have much to go on and the outcome is known in advance. What target audience could possibly have been in mind?
In an extra-film note concerning “the holiness of the Heart’s affection and the truth of Imagination,” the poet told a friend that “what the imagination seizes as Beauty, must be truth.” As with some other screen consideration of real-life artists and writers, much is imagined but not demonstrably true, with acting, production design and period costume hopefully covering for accuracy.
It is not that the result is bad but that, especially for this filmmaker, it is not good, either. Undistinguished although included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “The Contenders, 2009” exhibition, it is visually too reliant on side- or backlighting or illumination from fireplaces or artsy through a Dutch masters glass brightly via windows onto overexposed gardens.
Fanny does not so much pursue the pale and wan and up to then poet manqué, as fall under his self-deprecatory but disappointed spell. Having learned the art of needlework, at which, she pointedly remarks, one can make a living, she would now add that of poetry, at the feet of its delicate practitioner.
Her pretensions are opposed by Keats’s slightly older and dandyish friend, admirer, amanuensis, cheerleader and meager financial helper, Charles Armitage Brown. North Carolinian Paul Schneider sounds less Lambeth than stage Irish as this plaid-trousered, little bit oily protector of poets, whose morals, unlike his charge’s -- Keats uses “conscience” -- are not above a dalliance with none-too-bright kitchen maid Abigail O’Donaghue (Antonia Campbell-Hughes).
Less sarcastic opposition comes from Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox) and practical unromantic neighbor ladies, based on the poet’s penury and bleak prospects. He himself chafes, only a little, at losing his heart and freedom, climbs a tree to lie on its blossoms, and keeps their blooming love a chaste one.
If at all, these literary passions of the mind need to be taken on faith, for there is no screen chemistry between him and her. Ditto literary greatness, for beyond facile readings from the poems and some token words about the process, there is no sitting down to the task of writing and re-writing.
The man Keats was reportedly generous and admirable, qualities which beguile Fanny’s brother Samuel (Thomas Sangster) and cute-child redhead little sister Margaret “Toots” (Edie Martin). He was dogged by failure and poverty and a frail constitution weakened by tuberculosis, possibly acquired during the Vermeer-backlighted screen seconds he comforts dying brother Thomas in 1818. He catches film cold in the rain, spits blood and coughs his way to Italy, though only later does faint-souled Brown anguish a half-dozen times, “I have failed John Keats!” No, Bright Star does that.
(Released by Apparition and rated "PG" for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking.)