Jane Campion’s women are born to freeze and burn simultaneously. Most of the New Zealand director’s protagonists are the marginalized, caught in webs of family woe like Ada (Holly Hunter) in The Piano, mute though passionately intense about the one thing her husband forbids her. As a director, Campion loves to make us watch these women’s slow awkward moments pass, and then lurch us forward into more disasters, risking slow overkill so we might share the ironic powerlessness of smart, often artistic women. In her latest film, Bright Star, she shows us the cocooned Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), famous immortal beloved of poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), as a renowned seamstress (and incisive wit) who soon succumbs to doomed love for the man who will eventually become the greatest of the Romantic English poets. Neither of them do so great while alive, though.
What sets this film apart from Campion’s earlier tragedies, however, is its total lack of artistic trickeries. No giant gaps plague the narrative like Angel at My Table, and there are no core mysteries like The Piano‘s ambiguous conclusion. Instead, Campion lavishes on details, like clothing, something Brawne would notice, or odd social niceties like an a capella orchestral glee club. The things you’ll likely remember, though, seem more idiosyncratic than meaningful-the way Keats and Fanny tease her chaperoning little sister while sneaking kisses behind her back. Though some details, like the few attempts to show Keats as a real poet, seem strained.
In other words, it’s more romance film than Romantic poet biopic. And it does seem a bit weird that Fanny upstages the author of The Eve of St. Agnes. At this point in Campion’s work, frustrated passion seems more about Jane than Fanny, or any over-arching human predicament, male or female. It is an undeniably moving and beautiful film, though, about, as Keats might have called it, “the fierce dispute / betwixt damnation and impassioned clay.”