Bright Star (2009)

Welcome to the Overlooked Hotel, where guests are invited to disagree with the conventional wisdom and re-evaluate the underappreciated.

In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow became the first female filmmaker to be awarded Best Director at the Oscars for The Hurt Locker. While this victory for women in film was long overdue, there was another female-directed film released that year that deserved as much praise and recognition as Bigelow received — Jane Campion’s Bright Star. Fairly ignored at the awards circuit and even more so at the box office, Bright Star is a delicate, well-crafted romance film with rich characters and gorgeous cinematography.

Bright Star follows the true love story between Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and the English Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw). Their tragic tale is propelled by their strong feelings for each other, but mercilessly troubled by Keats’s illness and thwarted by Victorian social conventions. Their relationship inspired some of Keats’s most beautiful poetry: one obvious example would be “Bright Star”, the sonnet the film is named after.

As a period drama, Bright Star could easily be pegged under a cliché-ridden genre (and a total bore to many), but Campion succeeds in encapsulating the delight and anguish that comes with young love. Adopting dual roles of screenwriter and director, Bright Star certainly shines with Campion at her very best. The dialogue is lush with lyricism, as quotes from Keats’s poetry are interwoven with Fanny’s sharp wit. Campion’s expert direction portrays the star-crossed lovers as neither sappy or inane, but contrasts their immensely powerful emotions with the reserved restraint of the film’s steady pacing. Campion, too, plays with the disparity between the cosy interior elements of the house that Fanny’s family and Keats share, and the picturesque countryside that is enticing under the sun, and menacing in the harsh winter. The visual feats by cinematographer Greig Fraser are nothing short of breathtaking, too: Bright Star features the bright sunlight and pleasant scenery of the Victorian landscape in summer; the inviting warm tones emerging from a fireplace; the stark whiteness of the outdoors blanketed with snow.

The cast is also marvellous, especially Cornish’s immaculate depiction of Fanny, a young woman who accepts traits of Victorian femininity, such as being proud of her needlework and stitching, but still remains assertive and well-spoken. “Are you frightened to speak truthfully,” Keats asks after she admits to have read his poetry, and expresses initial ambivalence towards them. She replies, “Never.”

Whishaw, too, is a worthy counterpart for Cornish’s likeability. His quiet charm can be low key at times, but his chemistry with Cornish is unmistakably spectacular. Paul Schneider plays Brown, Keats’s friend who is against Fanny and Keats’s romance from the very beginning. From Parks & Recreation to The Newsroom, Schneider is always stellar in his acting abilities and puts up an admirable performance here as well.

Campion is one of the most iconic figures within the film industry in the past several decades, but still gets overshadowed by her male contemporaries. The Piano was her last commercial and critical success, but with Bright Star, Campion remains a worthy director who deserves all forms of recognition. As Fanny quotes from Keats’s “Endymion”:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never pass
into nothingness

Understated and refined, Bright Star is most definitely a thing of beauty that brings immense pleasure; a film that warrants attention from all.

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