Bright Star is one of those period pieces set in England about people whose determination to live full, rich lives is frustrated by the rigid social system of the day. This one deals with a three-year period in the life of 19th-century romantic poet John Keats, but the primary focus is on a determined, independent woman, Fanny Brawne - no surprise, given that the movie is written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady).
Films in this genre usually try my patience and make me drowsy. We are presented with a young man and a young woman who meet, flirt a lot while still being very proper, then fall in love, but are kept from becoming a full-fledged couple because that's simply not the way it's done. I watch these characters and want to scream, "To hell with the suffocating social order, why don't the two of you just split? Move to the part of town where the artists and non-conformists hang out and do your damnedest to thrive!"
Though the pacing is deliberate in spots, Bright Star held my interest. It reminded me that the characters were products of the system - this was their reality - and dashing off to a beatnik neighborhood is easier said than done. It reminded me that the system was there to attempt to impose order on chaos and that everyone, even the rebellious souls, relied on it. I enjoyed watching the determined Fanny (Abbie Cornish) bucking social conventions. It was intriguing to see Ben Whishaw play Keats as a delicate flower of a man, doe-eyed handsome, full of beautiful words, broke as a sailor on Sunday and frail, oh so frail.
What jump-starts the story is Keats' friend and benefactor, Charles Armitage Brown, beautifully portrayed by Paul Schneider, one of my favorite actors. If you've missed him in such indie films as George Washington, All the Real Girls and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, you can see him weekly on the new and much-improved (now it's actually funny!) TV series, Parks and Recreation. Mr. Brown is smart, robust and rude, challenging Fanny at every turn. He has great affection for his fragile friend and is annoyed/threatened at the possibility of Fanny interrupting their Important Work and stealing Keats away. In a story full of people moving about slowly and carefully, he adds a welcome dose of spontaneity and vigor. And he infuriates Fanny, which is a good thing, because angry Fanny is much better than mopey Fanny.
The push-pull is rewarding. Listening to people discuss ideas is refreshing. I wish Keats wasn't presented as such a rag doll — the role reversal works, but more character shading would have been nice.
Bright Star is well-crafted, with some striking images (the butterfly scene is memorable, as are the images of its aftermath). I'm not fond of this kind of film and I liked it, so if you're a fan of this genre, I suppose you will like it even more. Plus, Mr. Brown acts like a monkey in one scene and who doesn't like watching somebody act like a monkey? 119 minutes.