In this age of limitless Internet, online dating and instant gratification, “courtly love” has become a foreign concept … if anyone remembers it at all. (There’s a chance the English majors will keep it alive.) But Romantic poet John Keats, whom tragedy seemed to shadow, couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Neither, it seems, can Jane Campion. The New Zealand director’s “Bright Star,” a gorgeously lensed film about star-crossed lovers Keats and Fanny Brawne, is a love letter to a bygone era. Fret not that “Bright Star” is so out-of-touch as to be boring; it crackles with wit, energy and sexual tension. Some qualities never go out of fashion.
Understand upfront that “sexual tension” does not translate to “lots of sex scenes” and you’ll go far in understanding what makes “Bright Star” smolder. Sex is nowhere to be found. But forbidden passion, or passion tucked into the day’s hushed corners, is far more potent than even the steamiest beast-with-two-backs encounter. Of course, it helps if the undersexed lovers in question can generate real heat. Abbie Cornish (Fanny) and Ben Whishaw (Keats) can and do, right from the start. A plucky student of fashion, she has no need of poetry but feels a spark of affection for Keats, her next-door neighbor and a struggling poet. (This part is historically accurate — critics crushed “Endymion” upon its release.) She dispatches her younger sister Toots (Edie Martin) to fetch Keats’ book with this message: “My sister has met the author and she wants to read it for herself to see if he’s an idiot or not.” Who can resist a girl with gumption like that? Keats is a goner; the fun part is waiting to see how long until he realizes his heart’s lost to the cause.
At first, Keats isn’t sure how to take Fanny. She makes no bones about her distaste for poetry, yet there’s a softness in her that takes him by surprise: she embroiders a pillow slip for Keats’ brother, dying of consumption. Cornish and Whishaw are marvelous in this scene, sadness and tentative hope playing on their faces. Fanny says she’s entranced by the beginning of “A thing of beauty.” Her insistence that he teach her to understand poetry works and he warms to her — so slowly he realizes his affection only after his roommate/reader Charles Brown (a scrumptiously rakish Paul Schneider) jokingly sends Fanny a valentine. Reality quickly bursts their love bubble; Keats is sick and penniless and knows he can’t provide for Fanny. “I have a conscience,” he tells her, and Whishaw lets his anguish boil over. Fanny and Keats suspect their story’s finale will not be a happy one, but even in the 19th century love didn’t listen to reason.
Given the true ending to Keat and Fanny’s affair, “Bright Star” could have ended up a wailing melodrama that wallows in its own misery. While Campion does touch on the tragedy, she’s not interested in recreating “Romeo and Juliet.” She focuses instead on creating a vivid tale of first love and its transformative powers. In the process, Campion also creates an artful portrait of 19th-century Hampstead. Her attention to detail leads to some breath-snatching shots: Fanny, in a violet dress, reading poetry in a field of irises; Fanny and Keats kissing on a blanket with the rippling reeds behind them. Then there’s the best shot of all (one you’ll miss if you blink) of Fanny lying on a white bed with the white curtain swirling in the breeze of the open window. Visual poetry exists in this that struck me senseless. It’s a scene that somehow illuminates Fanny’s confusion over her growing passion for Keats and her rapture.
What a treat it is that Cornish, Whishaw and Schneider don’t get lost in such shots. A superb character actor who deserves more parts like this, Schneider’s boorish charm nearly excuses his spotty accent. Whishaw handles himself well in a demanding role, embodying Keats’ hopeless fight to reconcile what his heart wants with what his head knows. Cornish, however, is the clear standout. She is fierce and vulnerable and enchanting; she turns one of poetry’s best-known muses into flesh and blood. “Bright Star” indeed.