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In what I believe is director Jane Campion's answer to "Pride and Prejudice," the act breakdown reveals two currents flowing through this intense love story that involves poet John Keats who, though published and penniless, was posthumously destined to take his place alongside Lord Byron and Shelley as the key contributors of the Romantic movement in 19th century English literature.
The first act of our story of his actual flesh-and-blood romance begins in the London of 1818 when Keats (Ben Whishaw), a slender fellow, is living in an apartment in the Hampstead countryside with his friend, copyist and devoted supporter, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider). Much about that romance revolves around the obsessively protective Brown who, when a neighbor girl, one Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) shows signs of interest in his poetry pal.
In the second act, the relationship develops with agonizing detail, first kiss, the placing of beds on opposite sides of a common wall (which doesn't appear to be historically accurate but provides nice romantic imagery). The pacing of the mutual adoration is prolongued, with the occasional details of how poorly Keat's lastest book of poems, "Endymian," is selling and his work with Brown on his current work, "Bright Star."
"Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art..." it starts. But the reference is to Polaris, not to Ms. Brawne, and at least Campion has the good sense not to make any more of it than the inconvenient facts permit. Funny how often history doesn't serve the purposes of the romanticizer. In any case, Fanny has become as understanding of Keat's work as she is deeply entranced by him. Viewers who count themselves romantics will chew this drawn out, repetitive detail with great relish. I'd like to have the handkerchief concession. But, then, I'm not a romantic easily transported to another planet with sonnets, couplets nor heartbreak fare such as this.
The third act is where it paid off, even for me. Whatever else it is--a romantic biopic without compromise--this film is also, and for me, mostly, a celebration of the huge talent that is Abbie Cornish. It's here where that becomes fully realized. Her reaction to a development that can't be described just yet is delivered at a level beyond the norm but which marks all the passion and emotion that has preceded it.
Which is not to imply that Cornish has been anything less than elegantly fascinating throughout. Rather that there comes a climax, and Ms. Cornish is entirely up to its demands in such a way that she galvanizes us. I raved about her screen power in "Stoploss." Here she surpasses that. Given the right opportunities, I detect that this actress will occupy an acre of Meryl streep territory. And, I smell Oscar buzz.
Whishaw is well chosen for the handsome poet given to the ravages of tuberculosis in the healthcare climate of the period, when he contracted it in 1820. He's short and slight, not as robust as Cornish and quite a long way from Schnieder's contrasting physical heartiness. He nicely avoids the wispy-world-of-poetry cliche' with the manliness of the lover.
Kerry Fox, as Mrs. Brawne, does a most pleasurable mother figure who balances Brown's selfish imperiousness with surprising and unstereotypical reserve and understanding. One might suspect her character is based on the auteur, herself. An alter ego.
All technical credits are pro. The period is well served by Greig Fraser's cinematography and Janet Patterson's costumery.
~~ Jules Brenner