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Movie Review: Bright Star

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One tries to be objective when reviewing a film, but the reality is that you bring every moment of your life into a movie theater and some of those moments affect how you judge what you see. For me, Bright Star is tortuous to review because I've been reading anything by and about John Keats since college. From his childhood in London to the death of his parents and brother to his troubled relationship with his guardian to his time as a surgeon to his rapid growth as a poet to his early death in Rome -- every element of his life is always present in my mind. How then to judge a film which reduces that life to an unrequited, frantic love affair?

Director Jane Campion makes a choice in the first moments of Bright Star that -- depending on your perspective -- either reduces or refreshes the film: she tells Keats' story through the eyes of his muse, Fanny Brawne. Depending on what history you read, Fanny was either a shallow, flirty tart or a misunderstood woman who truly loved the great poet. Naturally, Campion settles on the latter. Brawne meets and falls in love with Keats and the two embark on a doomed affair ended by Keats' death from tuberculosis. The film is skillfully crafted and keenly acted, but Campion's choice renders profound material into a period soap opera.

As is often the case with films that deal with real events, accommodations are made with respect to the truth in order to (theoretically) heighten the drama. So in Bright Star we have Keats' friend Charles Browne rendered into a campy villain. While history shows that Browne was hardly charitable to Ms. Brawne, the idea that he was an absurd fool who abandoned Keats at his moment of great need is simply incorrect. While Paul Schneider builds on the promise first shown in All the Real Girls and seen again recently in The Assassination of Jesse James, his character is given too broad a stroke by Campion. Too much spice! Too many notes!

As Keats and Fanny, Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish deliver graceful, nuanced performances. Do I believe they love each other? Yes, but that's mostly because of the delicacy of the acting. What is it that Fanny first sees in Keats other than that he is a new visitor to the house? Likewise, what was it in Fanny that so bedeviled the historical Keats that he filled his letters with tormented lines of ecstasy denied? Indeed, the great collection of Keats' letters is virtually ignored which is shocking when you consider that many place those brilliant letters on par with his poetry. But, alas, Bright Star is more interested in dewy-eyed stares.

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Much of Keats' poetry does make its way into the film, but it's usually delivered as somber, whispered monologues. Keats was surely the most sensual of the Romantic Poets, but none of the beauty of his language is represented cinematically in the film. Consider this short passage from The Eve of St. Agnes

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,

In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender'd,

While he from forth the closet brought a heap

Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd

With jellies soother than the creamy curd,

And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;

Manna and dates, in argosy transferr'd

From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,

From silken Samarcand to cedar'd Lebanon.
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There is more life and passion in these plain lines on a back-lit computer screen than there is in any of the beautifully lit and wonderfully dressed sets in which Campion stages her Keats' pageant. It's a real shame. Considering the relatively small audience that his poetry enjoys, it seems unlikely that there will be a second cinematic strike at the Keats story. What we were left with then is Bright Star -- a pretty, but ordinary film about one of the great lights of Western literature. John Keats packed so much life into his twenty-five years that it's a damn shame Campion chose only to explore a single sliver of his extraordinary existence.

Bright Star opens today