Sunday, September 27, 2009

Movie Review: Bright Star (2009) - 3 stars

Jane Campion's latest period piece follows the last three years of John Keats' life. It is a beautiful looking film with fine performances that are sure to be remembered come Oscar time, but there is a distance to the movie that prevents it from being as powerful as it should have been. Campion chooses to take a step back while directing this film and let the story play out naturally, but there is one problem with that: There really isn't much of a story.

The film is set in London circa 1818 and the romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) is struggling to say the least. He has virtually no income and he is forced to spend his days staring out the window and brainstorming with his partner and friend Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider). His life finds a much needed boost when he meets Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and there is an instant attraction. But this isn't a romantic, passionate affair because Keats and Cornish cannot do much about their feelings. He has too little of an income to support himself well, let alone take care of a wife, and Brawne's parents do not seems to be thrilled with the idea of her marrying an unsuccessful man.

Nevertheless, the two seem practically inseparable. Fanny even begins to take poetry lessons from Keats because she wants to understand his art. She wants to know what goes around inside his mind. This is much to the fury of Brown, who sees Fanny as not only a distraction to their work, but possibly as someone that could threaten his relationship with Mr. Keats. In other words, Brawne and Keats embark on a forbidden and secretive relationship, the likes of which we have seen hundreds of times before.

The performances in this film are what make Bright Star worth watching. Schneider is solid in his supporting role as the unstable Brown, but this film really belongs to Whishaw and Cornish. They are wonderful together and there is something remarkably compelling about both of these performances. This is a story that develops very slowly and these engaging actors help keep the film moving along at a somewhat decent pace.

Despite these terrific performances, Campion's film is unable to achieve any real emotional power. The movie feels very lifeless at times and the story even seems unfocused. Is it more about the romance or the poetry? This film seems to try and accomplish both, but it comes up short in the two areas. Poetry and language are very tough things to make interesting on film and while Campion's effort is exceptional, I don't feel like I appreciate Keats' writing any more than I did walking into the theater.

While I certainly don't feel this film is worthy of the Oscar nominations it is probably going to get, it is still a piece that is worth seeing. The performances of Whishaw and Cornish are excellent and they keep the film from being entirely boring. These are the types of movies that usually get on my nerves come January because they steal nominations from more worthy films. Last year's thief was The Reader, and Bright Star looks like it could end up in a similar situation. I do think Cornish and Whishaw both deserve consideration in their respective categories, but as an overall film, I wish the Academy would just take it for what it is: a slightly above average romantic drama.


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