— by RACHEL COYNE —
I’m a sucker for period dramas. I’ll find something charming in the stuffiest and most boring movies if you dress them up in an empire-waist gown and beplumed bonnet.
That being said, while there are some truly lovely elements to “Bright Star,” there was an emotional disconnect that kept me from falling for it like I have for so many period pieces that came before it.
“Bright Star” tells the based-on-a-true-story tale of the ill-fated love between poet John Keats and the girl next door, Fanny Brawne. They meet in 1818, when Keats is staying with his friend Charles Brown, who lives next door to the Brawne family, and worrying over the failing health of his brother.
Fanny is youthful, energetic, flirtatious and a bit materialistic. Keats is morose, thoughtful, introverted and one step away from being a pauper. So naturally, they’re drawn to each other, despite both knowing that he cannot afford to marry.
But since young love will forever be all-consuming and illogical, they pursue their mutual attraction, leading to longing glances, hysterical outbursts, jealous accusations, stolen kisses and multiple heartbreaks. And while I won’t spoil the ending, I will say that Keats died at the tragically young age of 25, so you can probably predict how things turn out in the end.
While “Bright Star” is telling a love story about people who actually existed, it’s presented like nearly every teenage love affair you see today. Which may be the entire point of the film — young love was, and will always be, a time of madness — but that didn’t stop me from amusing myself by paralleling Keats and Fanny’s relationship to those that take place via Facebook today. She would post whiny status updates about how “my mom totally needs to STFU about how John needs a better job.” He would post emo poetry and photos of himself in black eyeliner. And the little pink hearts that mark their relationship status would constantly go from broken, to whole, to broken again.
Something about being able to so easily equate the movie with the immature nonsense on Facebook took a lot away from the emotional wallop it was hoping to deliver.
Where “Bright Star” really shines (pun partially intended) is in the performances. The casting was very well done, especially for a movie that features mostly minimally-known actors (at least here in the U.S.).
Abbie Cornish plays Fanny as the plain, simple girl she apparently really was, but uses her talents as a skilled seamstress and notorious flirt to make herself stand out from the crowd. But once she find herself falling for Keats, Cornish’s portrayal of obsessive infatuation and the resulting heartbreaks are uncomfortably true. Ben Whishaw’s Keats is both incredibly handsome and the perfect sensitive poet, so it’s no wonder that women find themselves drawn to him (he even manages to charm both Fanny’s mother and younger sister).
I found the standout performance to be Paul Schneider as Keats’s friend and roommate, Charles Brown. A struggling writer himself, but one with money, he’s very protective of his friend and has a fascinating love/hate relationship with Fanny. One moment he flirts with her like mad, then gets upset that she’s always hanging about.
But what he’s truly upset about is up for debate. Is it that Fanny prefers Keats to him? Or jealously that she’s taking his best friend away from him? Or jealously that Keats is a better poet? Or is it really just concern for his friend, like he says? It’s probably a combination of all of the above, but when delivered as snarky comments and angry outbursts, it’s often hard to tell what exactly Brown means by what he says, which makes him the most interesting character on the screen.
On the whole, “Bright Star” feels aimless and fails to pluck the heartstrings it so desperately wants to manipulate. The movie lacks conviction and tends to simply drift along, like a boat someone forgot to tether to the dock. And while the drifting trip passes some lovely spots from time to time, it’s hard to be excited about the destination since there really isn’t one. But oh, the bonnets are truly magnificent.
Bottom Line: “Bright Star” is a lovely-looking film, with admirable performances and a very authentic feel to it. But the wandering storyline and all-too familiar core plot keep it from being the sort of classic period drama that will withstand time. Fans of period pieces and poetry will likely enjoy it, but in a few months have already forgotten about it after watching the BBC miniseries “Pride & Prejudice” for the umpteenth time.
Click here to find when “Bright Star” will be released in a theater near you.
Follow Rachel Coyne on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TheOpinionatedB.