‘Bright Star’: A poet’s chaste love story

A thing of beauty is a joy forever - so wrote John Keats, who proved his own point by becoming one of poetry's immortals.

He was also pale, handsome, misunderstood, seductive and embroiled in a flaming yet chaste love affair with a young beautiful woman, as we see in the swooning romance "Bright Star."

Circumstances, you see, made consummation of their love impossible. So they pursued something more pure, an intermingling of souls, the emotional ecstasy of being matched at the 29 deepest levels of compatibility, etc.

Hmm. Immortal, pure, chaste . . . where have we seen these factors before?

Here's a clue: The folks behind "Bright Star" initially wanted to market the movie to teenage girls, as a romance.

Like, say, "Twilight."

And there you have it. "Bright Star" presents John Keats (Ben Whishaw) as poetry's vampire lover.

With some key differences. Instead of having amazing physical powers, Keats has tuberculosis, so his romance with London rich girl Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is time-sensitive, to say the least.

So much the better for romantics as incurable as Keats. His condition adds a mad urgency to the relationship, a special power.

So does the visual presentation by Aussie director Jane Campion, reviving the pictorialism of "The Piano," the love-it or hate-it art-house sensation of 1993.

There was stuff to deride in the movie, but Campion's image of the piano stuck in the sand and surf of a desolate coastline is a great colonial image, and the kind of thing that sticks in your head long after your forced expulsion of the naked Harvey Keitel.

I remember the surfing piano the same way I still remember the red-haired girl with the milk bucket toddling up the hill in Campion's "An Angel At My Table." Less as part of an engaging story than as a single visual idea that somehow expresses the movie's subject.

"Bright Star" is a return to Campion's deliberate style, one that seems almost revolutionary in the today's vid-game-influenced cinema of busyness. I love the way Campion lets the camera rest on an image. Especially when the image is Aussie dish Cornish, who plays Keats' starry-eyed admirer. Has an actress ever been photographed so flatteringly and at such length?

It's unfashionable, as is the seriousness with which Campion treats the Keats-Brawne affair. We tend to treat young love as a foolish thing, and Campion invites us to do so here, taking the condescending point of view of the older characters.

But Campion and "Bright Star" eventually bring us round to the poet's enraptured viewpoint, reminding us that whatever else young love is, it's a powerful force of nature.


Bright Star

Directed by Jane Campion. With Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Thomas Sangster, Paul Schneider, Sebastian Armesto, Samuel Barnett, Abbie Cornish, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Kerry Fox, Ben Whishaw, Samuel Roukin. Distributed by Apparition Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 59 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking).