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Live Ever or Else Swoon to Death

Bright Star (2009)

Pathé Films

All the strongest points of Jane Campion's style – the banked-up emotions, circular rhythms and eye for landscapes – are on full display in “Bright Star.” Marking a return to the Cannes red carpet 16 years after she won the Palme d'or here for “The Piano.” Ms. Campion's new film follows an equally conflicted love story, and along the way confirms all over again that she is one of the finest directors of actors around.

“Bright Star” finds poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) holed up in 18th-century Hampstead and devoted to his writing; he is therefore both broke and in fragile health. His neighbors are the Brawnes, of whom eldest daughter Fanny (Abbie Cornish) is especially immune to the charms of Keats's well-turned phrases. Instant friction builds up between Fanny and Keats's friend and collaborator Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider), who shows every sign of being unable to stand the sight of her and mutters witheringly about the “very well-stitched Miss Brawne.”

And well-stitched she certainly is. Fanny expresses herself with needle and thread just as eloquently as Keats does with language, creating clothes with striking collars and elaborate ruffs that cut quite a dash among the Hampstead Heathens.

Ms. Cornish, excellent through the whole film, is sublime in this first act. By her own admission able only to flirt and sew, though skilfully at both by the look of it, Fanny's proto-punk creativity is subtly stoked by her growing affection for Keats so the ruffs get bigger and the color schemes bolder. She even grows to like his poetry – a bit. Having sent her young sister Toots (Edie Martin) to buy a copy of Endymion in order to decide if the author is an idiot, she delivers her considered verdict on one of the English language's classic stanzas: starts well, shame about the rest of it.

Keats is doomed, of course. Tuberculosis finally does him in after the poet is caught in a downpour, and Franny is duly caught in turn in an emotional crisis she's unprepared for. Luckily for the viewer, not only are Ms. Cornish and Mr. Whishaw both nimble performers, but Ms. Campion isn't built for melodrama, preferring to let a static camera and a calm gaze catches the subtleties of actors' faces in ways that would be lost if the temperature was needlessly higher. A modest amount of blood is coughed up, but Ms. Campion is far more interested in Fanny's heart than in Keats's lungs.

Instead, she frames the sad couple from a distance, in misty English landscapes, lavender fields and snowscapes, and the cinematography by Greig Fraser is a memorable treat. Ms. Cornish is memorable too in a part that eventually pushes the actor into some shadowy places, but those of us who were left floored by her work in “Candy” will hardly be surprised by that.


Opens on Sept. 16 in New York and Los Angeles and on Nov. 6 in Britain.

Written and directed by Jane Campion; director of photography, Greig Fraser; edited by Alexandre de Franceschi; music by Mark Bradshaw; production designer, Janet Patterson; produced by Jan Chapman and Caroline Hewitt; released by Apparition. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. This film is rated PG by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Abbie Cornish (Fanny Brawne), Ben Whishaw (John Keats), Paul Schneider (Mr. Brown), Antonia Campbell-Hughes (Abigail O’Donaghue) and Kerry Fox (Mrs. Brawne).


Jane Campion gets a lot of props, but I have yet to see anything of hers that I can recall. Would you recommend something else of hers for my first time around?

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