Biopics are a notoriously risky business. Too often the director feels obliged to touch upon every major moment in the life of her subject. But if the subject is well known, how do you recreate these moments in ways that are both familiar and new? In other words, how do you tell the story at hand while preserving the film itself as an original work of art?
The cleverest directors approach their subject from an angle—they seek to “tell the truth slant.” In the case of the famously slippery Bob Dylan, the director Todd Haynes cast several actors in the role of the lead in his biopic “I’m Not There,” including a black boy and a blond woman. In “Raging Bull,” Martin Scorsese avoids the pitfalls of conventional film biography by elevating the life of Jake LaMotta to something close to opera.
Jane Campion chooses a more traditional form of narrative in Bright Star, her study of the life of the poet John Keats. Yet by focusing on just two years in the poet’s life and picking an artist whose life story is only vaguely known to the public at large, she has created a truly original work of art that is worthy of her subject.
Ben Whishaw, last seen as Sebastian Flyte in the 2008 adaptation of “Brideshead Revisited,” plays Keats, a gaunt fellow with a shabby coat who perseveres in his writing even as negative reviews and poor sales threaten his livelihood. At a local dance (where he stands on the sidelines, natch) he strikes up a conversation with Frances “Fanny” Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a family friend who does not claim to understand poetry but is nonetheless intrigued by a man who wields a quill.
At first, their exchanges are short and playful, but their flirtations soon blossom into a passionate love affair, despite the protestations of friends and family. Keats, you see, does not have enough money to support a wife and that nasty cough of his threatens to turn into something far worse. I won’t give away anything else here, but readers of Victorian fiction (or Wikipedia, for that matter) will be able to piece together the rest of the story.
If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Campion is working within a genre, and the genre dictates certain narrative constraints. So you will not see Keats and Brawne tumbling into bed together (a welcome relief from contemporary romances), and it is inevitable that Fanny’s family will try to convince her to sever her “attachment” to the debt-ridden poet. Yet what ultimately makes “Bright Star” more than a genre film—what separates it from an exercise in period romance such as, say, “Becoming Jane,”—is its intelligence. Without losing focus on the film’s narrative, Campion finds time to play with ideas and ask provocative questions.
Particularly edifying are Campion’s reflections on the Romantics, that peculiar species of artist who devoted themselves to the wonders of nature and the power of the muse. In Campion’s telling, Keats spends his days laying about his country house or walking the Heath, waiting for the perfect mixture of atmosphere and circumstance to spark the creativity that would allow him to put quill to paper. From the distance of history, such pursuits may strike the observer as naive, if not willfully ignorant. In a century that saw the rise of both economic and political revolutions, composing verse about flowers can seem a tad frivolous. Yet in her eloquent images of the English countryside, alive with plants of all colors, Campion adroitly shows (but never tells) what so transfixed the Romantics. By doing so, she demonstrates how devotion to nature could serve as an implicit rebuke to the destructive social forces of the time.
Campion does not subscribe to the facile notion that love does great art make. (See “Shakespeare in Love,” 1998.) Yes, Keats does enjoy a period of creative resurgence during his romance with Fanny, but Campion does not suggest a simple one-to-one correlation. She understands that the origins of genius are far more mysterious and elusive. In one telling scene, Keats’ friend and fellow poet, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), is both amazed and exasperated by Keats’ talent. Grabbing hold of Keats’ hands, he wonders whether it is the hands themselves that are the taproot of the poet’s brilliance or whether some other force is at work. Keats seems just as mystified by the source of his creativity.
For all its intelligence, however, “Bright Star” would not succeed without the flesh-and-blood passion of its lead actors. Cornish’s performance, in particular, bristles with an intensity one rarely encounters outside the theater. Over the course of the film, she masterfully guides the transformation of her character from an immature flirt to a tragic heroine worthy of Ibsen. In part because of his spindly frame, Whishaw cannot quite match Cornish’s force in their final scenes together. He is better at conveying the poet’s winsome nature, especially in his interactions with Fanny’s darling younger sister, “Toots.”
It is a rare film that keeps me in my seat past the final scene, but in “Bright Star” I found myself fixed in place while “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” was read aloud as the final credits rolled. I read the poem in high school, but hearing it again it sounded as if it were written yesterday. It is a tribute to Keats’ unique genius that, 200 years, nearly 20 biographies and scores of dissertations later, his work can still surprise.