Abbie Cornish, in 'Bright Star'

Dir. Jane Campion
(2009, PG, 119 min)
★ ★

Watching Bright Star reminded me why I enjoyed reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies so much. That recent novelty hit intersperses Jane Austen’s original prose with bouts of kung-fu and zombie mayhem. Though it might seem a bastardization to some, I found it refreshing — an exhalation of the 19th Century romance’s staunch gentility. If there ever was a film that needed an equal touch of the absurd, it’s this one: Bright Star Galactica, or Bright Starship Troopers, or Bright Star and Boogeymen might be eminently more watchable than the film as it is.

Written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano), the film is austere to the point of somnolence. It is absent of energy and dramatic tension. It’s stifled and suffocating. Characters speak like they’ve been woken from a long nap; “I’m boiling with fury,” says poet John Keats in one scene, with all the ferocity of a kitten yawning.

Abbie Cornish stars as Fanny Brawne, a clothing designer and seamstress who becomes the inspiration for Keats (Ben Whishaw). After his death, he would become one of the most celebrated of the Romantic poets, but the Keats of the film is a depressive drip who speaks only in poeticisms. How tiresome he is as he quotes himself, composes new masterpieces off the cuff, and gazes in doe-eyed wistfulness. He demonstrates no personality beyond his work, which he recites with sleepy reverence. I took a college course on this period, and though I never developed a strong ear for poetry, Campion’s staid presentation of it doesn’t help. The words blend together into a listless fog of pretty sounds.

Why does Fanny fall in love with him? She’s drawn to his writing, which she doesn’t completely understand, but the man behind the poems shows no passion. He shows precious few signs of life. He dies tragically at the age of twenty-five, but when he begins to show symptoms I was rooting for the tuberculosis.

Keats is assisted by his best friend, Charles Armitage Brown, who dislikes Fanny because she lures him away from his work, but seems more than a little jealous of his devotion to her. He’s played by American Paul Schneider, and a shiny nickel to the first person who can tell me what accent he’s supposed to be doing. Scottish? English? A lot of American breaks through too. Schneider is a good actor, miscast; why have him play the role instead of one of the many excellent British actors who already sound like Charles Brown is meant to?

The cinematography is by Greig Fraser, and it’s the best thing about the film. He uses soft, sunlit tones that cast a glow on the actors and settings. There’s a shot of Fanny laying in bed as the wind blows through her room that is far more expressive of being in love than any of the uses of Keats’s poems. I also admired one of the few playful compositions, where Fanny and Keats walk behind her younger sister, Margaret, and freeze in their tracks whenever Margaret turns around. For a moment there, love seems bright and airy. For the rest of the film, it struggles to breathe.