Film Review: BRIGHT STAR

Written and Directed by Jane Campion
Starring: Abby Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fix, Paul Schneider
Released: US, September, 2009
Running Time: 119 minutes

I will confess to seeing this film on a night when the Detroit Tigers faced elimination in post-season playoff games. This did not particularly influence my enjoyment of the film, but I was accompanied by two restless friends, whose attention was tested by what was happening at Comerica Park. I wonder how often one’s opinion of a movie is influenced by the people around us. A slight and romantic film is not the one to see if you cannot give it complete attention.

PLOT: Fanny Brawn (Abby Cornish), a young and fashionable woman falls hard for the young poet, John Keats (Ben Whishaw), in early nineteenth century England. He is a penniless and unknown poet and her family is against their relationship. The romance is also opposed by Charles Armitage Brown, a friend of Keats, who regards himself as keeper of the flame. He sees Fanny as a distraction for Keats and does what he can to keep them apart. As Keats’ only financial support, he is a powerful force. However, the romance is eventually destroyed by disease rather than friends or family.

This is a fragile story in terms of action or even plot. What holds the piece aloft is how lovely it looks-a work of art that mirrors Keats’ poetry. Another contributing strength is the caliber of acting here. Every role is played beautifully. The period is captured artfully without drawing unnecessary attention to costumes, furniture, sets.

What I found most interesting in the film however, was the story of Charles Armitage Brown and why he was so opposed to Keats’ romance—even before it was clear that Keats would not survive, dying at the age of 25, in fact. I did a bit of research and learned that if it were not for Brown, Keats would be unknown today. He saved every scrap of poetry Keats wrote, encouraged him when no one else did, and kept him writing until his death. Perhaps intuiting that the frail man might not survive exposure to his brother’s illness, he couldn’t endorse any activity that might take him away from his writing. He saw Fanny as a rather superficial woman, not one worthy of his friend. Schneider’s powerful and angy performance is a necessary balance to Whishaw’s ethereal Keats.

And for years Fanny Brawn was viewed as nothing more than a distraction, a woman more concerned with her clothes and storybook notions of romance than with the poet’s art. This movie looks at her much more sympathetically-as a victim of a complete and utter devotion to the man and his poetry—as he was to her.

It is a lushly romantic movie but has gossamer wings. Recommended to those who can give themselves over to it wholly for “a thing of beauty is a job forever.”

Patti Abbott writes crime fiction short stories. She hosts a look at Forgotten Books every Friday with readers, writers and reviewers at She hopes you’ll join in.