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Love Burns True in Jane Campion's Bright Star

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • 2009 2 Oct
Love Burns True in Jane Campion's <i>Bright Star</i>

DVD Release Date:  January 26, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  September 18, 2009 (limited); October 2, 2009 (wider)
Rating:  PG (for thematic elements, mild sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking)
Genre:  Period Drama
Run Time:  119 min.
Director:  Jane Campion
Cast:  Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox

When a woman dreams of poetry and romance—of how a man could use them to make her come alive, completely rule her thoughts, her dreams, and her total heart—she dreams of a story like this one.

That description may suggest a Harlequin trifle, even an eye-roller.  Far from it.  Bright Star is no mere fanciful swoon.  It's not a dreamy affair of young infatuation, impetuous lust or idealized love.  It is, rather, that rare film which can honestly be said to be about true love, its absolute fullness, its consuming depth—yet also the reality of how natural forces often work against true love, and the value of holding onto it in the face of life's indifferent conspiracy.

It also has the virtue of being true.

Set in early nineteenth century England, Bright Star depicts the relationship between fashion student Fanny Brawne and the great romantic poet John Keats (whose sonnets to Brawne—published posthumously—are the stuff of legend, one from which this film draws its title).  Neighbors yet opposites, it was not love at first sight.  Brawne did not think much of literature (let alone poetry), and Keats assumed stereotypes regarding her pursuit of fashion (buying into his best friend's claim: "All she knows is to flirt and sew."). 

But when Keats begins to care for his seriously ill younger brother, Brawne is touched and extends her help—in part because his assumptions of her aren't entirely false; she longs to be better, more sensitive and open.  Keats, in turn, is moved by her gesture.  Discussions of poetry naturally emerge, respect and affection grow and, without intention, their souls suddenly connect. It plays like a Jane Austen tale but with more melancholy, and minus the assured outcome.

The genius of this film's basic construct is its almost-singular first-person perspective of Fanny Brawne.  Keats exists in this story only as he relates to her.  Indeed, it's not so much "their" story as it is hers, and what he awakens in her.  This intimate point of view creates a potent emotional vitality, and keeps the film from sludging through the standard beats of a biopic's third-person observational distance. 

It's also what makes the occasional poetry voice-overs feel like revelations of the soul rather than post-production crutches used to prop up generic montages of knowing glances.  Recitations such as "I want a brighter word than bright; a fairer word than fair" or "Through what stumbling ways is a soul born?" do not create the film's mood; they naturally come from what we've already been watching and feeling.

Most cinematic romances—even those set in more repressed Victorian times—often succumb to scenes of raw physical carnality.  Some of the best period pieces can't help themselves, indulging in momentary bodice-ripping zeal so as to inject the proceedings with a little sex appeal.  Bright Star dares to go in the opposite direction. 

By staying consistent to the era's taciturn sexual mores, director Jane Campion (The Piano) actually creates an intense romantic obsession, one that is authentically yet inoffensively erotic.  It's a sexual intensity not about sex but rather about being one in soul and spirit, and in every moment.  The touch of a hand gives goose bumps, walking together is its own joyful ecstasy, and to simply hold each other makes the heart pound.  It's powerful to feel this much surging passion with mere kisses and looks, all while fully clothed.  What's captured here is the cinematic equivalent of Keats' own written words to Brawne:

"Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else—The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you again[s]t the unpromising morning of my Life—My love has made me selfish.  I cannot exist without you—I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again—my Life seems to stop there—I see no further.  You have absorb'd me."

If you want to feel that, then go see Bright Star.

Yet anyone familiar with Keats' life or the director's films knows this bliss can't last forever.  Campion has made a career (and won Oscars) off of tortured love stories, yet Bright Star is different (even opposite, and superior).  Her past films have been about tortured people who destroy their circumstances.  This, conversely, is a bittersweet arc of pure people who are tragically tortured by circumstances.  They are not ruining their lives; it's life that threatens to ruin them.  This context earns our empathy, and it's what helps lift Bright Star above Campion's previous achievements.

Mannered, restrained, and underplayed to the hilt, Bright Star is (miraculously) anything but stuffy.  It's a deft feat, avoiding even a hint of melodrama, anchored by two fiercely vulnerable performances.  Ben Whishaw (Brideshead Revisited) brings full clarity to Keats, naturally balancing the unadulterated passion of an artist in love with the reason and ethics that the responsibility of love requires.  His is not the petulant or moody poet, but a manly one.  As Fanny Brawne, Abbie Cornish (Stop-Loss) is a revelation.  Underneath a stoic veneer, she conveys a beautiful whirlwind of love inside her—its confusion, its completion, its freedom.  A mere gulp is enough to reveal her full passion for Keats, and we feel its overwhelming grip.  This is a career-making performance.

For those of us who believe in true love, the inescapable destiny of John Keats and Fanny Brawne leaves us in a bittersweet mystery.  Why would God create such a beautiful love only to allow such cruel tests?  It seems unfair, even unjust.  But that's why poetry exists, Keats discovers.  It allows us to live in what he called a "Negative Capability"—the ability to live in uncertainty, with peace, and have "doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." 

"Poetry," Keats concluded, "soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery."  With artistry, insight and tenderness, Bright Star soothes and emboldens our souls in the same way.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  Incidental smoking.
  • Language/Profanity:  None.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  A sensual reference to kissing, as well as a few passionate kisses - but on the whole, extremely chaste.
  • Violence/Other:  None.

Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit or click here.  You can also subscribe to "Steelehouse Podcast" through iTunes.