Biopics can be a tricky thing to pull off; too many times, the film can feel like it’s just telling you the highlights of a person’s life without actually giving you a real idea of who that person is (case in point: “Walk the Line”). That doesn’t mean films like that are irredeemably awful (again, “Walk the Line”), but it does mean they lack the spark that makes them great.
Well, along comes Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” a pseudo-biopic of John Keats (Ben Whishaw); I say pseudo because while it does feature Keats as the male lead, it’s really the story of his lady love, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
In the isolated countryside of England, the two are neighbors and Fanny takes quite the interest in the young poet, to the total consternation of Keats’ housemate Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Brown is convinced that Fanny will trap Keats into marriage and force him to get a real job and give up poetry to support her. But well, Keats is in such dire financial straits that he doesn’t even propose to her (and ends up leaving her for a while) because he knows he’ll never be in the position to marry her.
So, we have two young people in love, who cannot marry but who would like to. That would be tragedy enough right there, but then real life has to intervene and their story is made all the more devastating; John Keats, who is now regarded as the greatest Romantic poet ever, died from tuberculosis at 25 (before you guffaw, think: Can you really spoil a biopic?).
In other hands, the weight of melancholy would crush any life or joy out of the film, but Campion, who also wrote the screenplay, has just the right touch for the material. The dread is already in the story, but instead she focuses on the possibilities these young lovers see (and don’t see) for their futures.
Until the end that is, where it’s clear to everyone John is going to die; the characters, even the minor ones, are infused with this desperation in their scenes with him, and it’s as devastating to them as it is to us.
Most of the time, I can keep my emotions at bay, even during the most savage weepies (looking at you, “Steel Magnolias”), but even days after seeing the movie, one last scene still makes me teary-eyed. Bravo, Campion; you’ve won this round. You’ve given the world an intimate look into a tragedy-filled love story, and I’m not ashamed to say I loved it.
“Bright Star” (2009)
Written and directed by Jane Campion
Starring: Abbie Cornish (Fanny Brawne)
Ben Whishaw (John Keats)
Paul Schneider (Charles Brown)