It's hard to think of a more sure-fire recipe for disaster than to try to portray the life and loves of a famous poet on screen. Add period and setting (1818, England) and one conjures a certain deadly-dreadful Masterpiece Theatre fare, at its best embarassing (blasted heath, declaimed verse, heaving bosoms) and at its worst the cinematic equivalent of narcolepsy. Yet Jane Campion, herself capable of creating such disaster (O, but to have the two hours of my life spent watching Portrait of a Lady returned to me!) has gotten away with it in Bright Star, her portrait of John Keats in love.
It's actually Fanny Brawne in love; we see Keats through the peculiarly intimate point of view of his chaste though impassioned lover, played with instant star intensity by Abbie Cornish. And the movie is not so much about what you'd typically find in a historical biopic, as it is about what's left out.
Bright Star is focused on the interstices between the big stuff - the meaning of art, beauty, poetry and all that - and the hopelessly mundane: how a hem gets sewn, how tea is served, what exactly wind and light can do to a bedroom drape on an English afternoon.
For this reason - that it's a sincere attempt on its filmmaker's part to meet the world of Keats' poetry with a cinematic language of matching intensity - Bright Star is filled with ravishing images. When Keats takes to the top of a tree to contemplate the sky, you feel nearly just as drunk on sumptuous physicality.
The movie is essentially a time machine - a vehicle designed by an anthropological film poetess to take you to another time and place, so remote from our own as to seem truly otherworldly.
It is, of course, a movie that could easily inspire hatred. Though it succeeds in avoiding Biopic Mawk for the most part (you can't have such a movie, unfortunately, without Keat's untimely tubercular cough) it's mostly gossamer - an ephemeral experience that could easily drive even the most dedicated art house/indie buff to seek out say, five minutes of Fast and Furious 4.
If on the other hand, you're interested in contemplating what a new book looked like in 1818 and how it was gift-wrapped, this could be for you. Fans of perfect casting will also favor it. Ben Whishaw as Keats is hot; Paul Schneider is an ideal big bearish buffoon of a romantic obstacle, and Edie Martin was born to be little Toots, a chubby fledgling pre-Raphaelite nymph.
It wouldn't hurt to have a deeply romantic streak. And a taste for fashion.
If you're lucky, you first read Keats when you're young enough to embrace being that unashamedly carried away. The film brings the music of his words to life again - as you watch Campion's imagery (Greig Fraser's work with Campion here is as exquisite as Coutard with Godard), the famous lines read aloud sing with the shock of the new. It's oddly Zen, this butterfly wing of a movie: Bright Star takes you to the past and makes it very, very present.