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Sunday, 8 November 2009

Film – Bright Star – directed by Jane Campion

Star rating 9/10

It is always a little worrying when a film that has been eagerly awaited then receives rave reviews. So often the excitement seems to be misplaced or overdone. But not in this latest offering from Jane Campion. Even her previous brilliant work, ‘The Piano’ is put in the shade by this impossibly sad tale of doomed love between the young poet John Keats, and the feisty seamstress, Fanny Brawne.

The film opens in 1818 when the two first meet in the then village of Hampstead. Fanny is immediately hostile to his friend and fellow poet Charles Brown, a feeling which seems to be based on some previous experience that is not really explained by the film. A little more back story would probably have been helpful here, but that is a minor quibble really. The two lead parts are beautifully and totally believably played by Ben Wishaw and Abbie Cornish. The on screen chemistry between these two actors is incredible, as they portray the developing romance and eventual heartrending ending with their love remaining unconsummated.

Fanny is feisty, independently minded, and a very skilful dress designer – the Vivienne Westwood of her day. At first she is scornful of the art of poetry, and prefers instead a man with a ready wit. Keats rebukes her for wanting a dandy, but this initial verbal sparring soon gives way to infatuation and romance. Fanny comes to appreciate the beauty of his craft.

The two handed relationship is threatened momentarily by the jealousy of Brown, who seem to veer between resentment of Fanny for taking the attention of his friend away from himself and their poetry, to wanting Fanny for himself via a crude Valentine gesture. But the feelings of Fanny and John are too strong to brook interference. The other more practical obstacle is that Keats is penniless, in debt even, and so not the most promising catch for Fanny as potential husband material in the early nineteenth century.

There is no mystery about how the story ends. The frail Keats dies tragically young at the age of 25, after Fanny and her family desperately try to nurse him back to health. Campion treats this inevitable tragic conclusion very sensitively. Brown comes to tell the Brawne family the terrible news from Rome, where Keats had gone to escape the harsh English winter, and for the first time in the film he now seems to realise how deep Fanny’s love for Keats really is.

The settings are sumptuous, with bluebell meadows and leafy woods providing the perfect backdrop to the tale. The supporting cast are excellent, including a nicely played part by Edie Martin as Fanny’s little sister Toots. And the final reciting of Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by Wishaw over the closing credits is mesmerisingly poignant. A beautifully sad, brilliantly acted and deeply touching film, which for once truly does live up to its billing.

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