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Movie Review: Bright Star

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To get closer to poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), Frances ‘Fanny’ Brawne (Abbie Cornish) decides to brush up on her reading. She starts carrying an armful of books including Paradise Lost everywhere she goes. Suspicious, Keats’ roommate decides to toy with her. He asks if she finds Milton’s rhymes “too bouncy” and she says “not overly so.” The gorgeous new movie Bright Star made me smile at that moment, sensing a set up. You see, Milton didn’t use rhymes.

Despite my brief flirtation with Paradise Lost, I’ve always felt lacking when it comes to poetry. I haven’t read much and Milton’s masterpiece was a struggle, text in one hand, Cliff’s Notes cradled in the other. And I certainly don’t claim to understand verse. Because of this, I felt close kinship with Fanny as she says poetry takes too much effort for her to follow. But follow it she must if she’s to understand this beguiling new young man in her life.

Bright Star traces the romance between Keats, a struggling poet, and the out-spoken, high-fashion minded Fanny, but there’s no "meet cute" moment. They seem incompatible at first. She’s introduced to us through tight close-ups of needle and thread pulling together a seam. He sits fountain pen in hand composing words on scraps of paper. She’s immaculately coiffed. He’s disheveled. She’s quick to remind him that there’s money to be made in her talent. People always need clothes. But what will his words ever earn him?

And yet, there’s something about the poet and something about his words that she can’t shake. Soon, she finds herself, against her best instincts, falling in love. And as she falls in love with the poet, we fall in love with the ecstatic images of director Jane Campion (The Piano). The brightly colored costumes and towering top hats leap from the screen like cartoons. And a field of lavender becomes a lush playground for the two lovers as they frolic, totally out of their minds.

One of my favorite sequences has Keats and Fanny stealing away through a wood toward an isolated lakeshore, the tall grass forming a tunnel over their path. Finding a moment of peace as if they’ve escaped to a special world of their own imaginations, they share their first passionate kisses. But Fanny’s younger sister has followed them and they are interrupted by her calls. As they work their way home, back to reality, the young girl leads the way while the lovers steal kisses behind her back. Whenever the girl turns around, they freeze, playing a game of red light/green light.

But fun and games can tragically only last so long. This is the story, after all, of a poet now regarded as one of the greatest of all romantic writers, a man who lived merely to the age of 25. There’s foreboding imagery in the torrential downpour and chilling night that he gets caught in, pointedly without properly warm clothing, striking him ill. There’s deep, overwhelmingly painful sadness in Fanny’s breakdown after hearing about his death. It is truly a love affair neatly captured by Keats’ own words, “forever panting and forever young.”

The best compliment I can pay Bright Star is that it fired me with desire to read some Keats. And having accompanied Fanny on her journey to understand Keats the man and Keats the poet, I finally feel well equipped to embark on that journey as well.

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