There is really only one way to describe the recent film Bright Star: It is exactly like the poetry of one of its central characters, John Keates. This movie is painfully beautiful and heart-wrenchingly tragic, ceaselessly Romantic, lyrical and slow-moving. And on top of all that, like all the best poetry of the past and present, it presents a world of beauty and heartbreak to which all can relate on one level or another.
Bright Star tells the story of the tragic romance between poet John Keates and his sometimes-neighbor Fanny Brawne. When the movie opens, Brawne is a seamstress whose success seems to be growing. The bankrupt Keates is staying next door with his friend and fellow poet Charles Brown, struggling to eke out a living writing poetry with little success. Keates and Brawne at first seem to inhabit different worlds, Fanny’s one of the practical and down-to-earth, and Keates’ a much more immaterial world of poetry and words. But as they begin to spend time together, they realize that they connect on a deeper level, and a tentative romance blossoms. Soon they are madly in love. When they are apart, they write long, heartfelt letters, and when tragedy finally strikes and Keates dies, young and yet unknown by the literary world, Fanny’s life is torn asunder.
Now, one might think that after the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, we would have had quite enough of the period film about the spunky heroine who finds herself falling for the man she at first thought she hated. But the romance between Fanny and John is refreshingly un-gimmicky, their progression from mild dislike, to tentative flirtation, to heart-stopping romance surprisingly natural. Throughout the film, the pair seem to be engaging in a just-below-the-surface intellectual debate about the nature of beauty and the importance of poetry in a practical world. But Fanny never loses her practical edge, and Keates never gets his head out of clouds. Instead they learn to balance each other, appreciating, if never entirely understanding, the beauty that each of them brings into the world: Keates through his poetry and Brawne through her sense of design. Somewhat ironically, considering the melodrama usually associated with the Romantics, this romance is refreshingly subtle. Plus, as many reviewers have pointed out, the film is possibly one of the sexiest I’ve seen in quite a while, despite the fact that there is no actual sex in it.
Bright Star is full of complex and fascinating characters, but my favorite, without a doubt, is Fanny. Not much seems to be known about her historically, though letters exist that detail her life and relationship with the famous poet she almost married. She is portrayed as an unselfconscious and independent woman. She is a practical soul who enjoys people and enjoys life. Though a unique and complex character who might have easily been turned into one of those spunky ahead-of-her-time heroines, the film sees no need to trumpet her independence. She is merely Fanny, and that is what makes her feel so real in any time period.
Best of all, Bright Star has one of the most unselfconscious historical settings I have seen in some time. The 19th century England of Bright Star lacks that perfect-Hollywood-period-film sheen common in films like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Shot with a stark sort of beauty, it is instead something earthier and messier, something that feels much more real. In my own blog, I have already spoken of the film’s down-to-earth costuming decisions. Not every shot is beautiful and flawless, either. Bright Star contains a scene in a terribly unromantic hospital and any number of harsh winter landscapes. Details like small spaces in which characters sometimes seem to live on top of each other and clothing worn over and over add to the feeling of realistic “historicalness” often missing from period films.
The two best words used to describe Bright Star are two words you usually don’t see together: unselfconscious and Romantic. The film not only paints an image of a faraway era and of a poet who is now a firm member of the poetic canon, but also, succeeds in creating something immediate, real, and emotionally raw that connects the present to the past and the everyday to the poetic. It is, dare I say it, one of the best period films I have seen in a very long time.