Where words fail, poetry triumphs. Bright Star, Jane Campion's ecstatic couplet to John Keats, tubercular Romantic poet, and Fanny Brawne, robust Regency fashion plate and muse next door, conveys desire in an ode, consummation in a sonnet.
Intimate as a whisper, immediate as a blush, and universal as first love, the PG-rated film positively palpitates with the sensual and spiritual.
Though it takes place in 1818 and the language is of the period, thanks to superb performances the real-life characters are as timely today as they were nearly 200 years ago.
There is the ethereal Keats (Ben Whishaw, feverish with longing), awakened as from a reverie by the substantial and spirited Fanny (Abbie Cornish, rosebud-fresh). It is not love at first sight.
She is a seamstress of considerable originality (look at her three-ply strawberry collar!), but Keats has eyes only for nature, not for clothes. He is a poet of controversial reputation (listen to his allusions!), but Brawne has ears only for the language of flirtation, not of verse. Poetry, she tells him, is a strain.
He dismisses her as a minx; she sizes him up as sickly and penniless - not desirable qualities in a suitor. And yet. When they are in the same room, each feels more deeply. "You always concentrate my whole senses," Keats would write Brawne, who inspired his best-known works.
As Campion tells it, in imagery as rhapsodic as that of any Romantic ode, when the two are together, colors are more vivid, smells more pungent, feelings more profound.
Campion did not film her movie in Smell-O-Vision, it only seems as though she has. In a woodland sequence where the pair trip lightly across a carpet of bluebells, I nearly swooned from the fragrance - not to mention the erotic vibrations - emanating from the screen.
Too often figures in costume dramas are arranged like statuary in a museum. Campion sees the extraordinary in the ordinary, casually presenting her characters like fresh cuttings from the garden. As Keats, Whishaw (Perfume) is a frenzy of hair atop a twiglike trunk. As Brawne, Cornish (Stop-Loss) plants herself next to him as if to furnish protective windbreak. Together, they flourish; apart, they languish.
And, as in any great romance, there are many forces driving them apart. Chief among them are Keats' ill health and abject poverty.
Close behind is Keats' meddlesome friend and patron, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider, wonderful as this sarcastic and self-important swan), who rents quarters from Brawne's widowed mother (Kerry Fox). At first, Keats and Brown live next door to the Brawnes. Then the poets share a house with Fanny's family, bringing the lovers in even closer proximity.
Campion, who both wrote and directed, tells their story elliptically and soaringly. The filmmaker's offbeat dialogue has a unique cadence, and her oblique compositions observe Archibald MacLeish's faith that "a poem should not mean, but be."
Through Campion's eyes, there is never the sense that Keats expressed to Brawne poetically what he could not physically. Here is a movie that believes that verse and image are physical expressions. In a word, it's ravishing.