British audiences have become so used to seeing dumbed-down, sexed-up treatments of the lives of writers and artists that Bright Star - Jane Campion’s film about John Keats’s relationship with Fanny Brawne - may come as something of a shock. At once austere and lush, Campion’s sensitive and intelligent movie functions as an antidote to brash and banal TV programmes such as Desperate Romantics (2009): its dialogue is mostly believable; it has committed, uncaricatured performances (especially from Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish as Keats and Fanny); it delicately evokes nature and the changing seasons; and it gracefully works in a fair number of Keats’s poems. It is, as reviewers have consistently been pointing out, a “beautiful” work.
But if the good news is that Campion has avoided some of the crasser tendencies of the TV and film biopic with Bright Star, the bad news is that, in doing so, she’s produced her most conventional movie to date. As Bright Star progressed, I found myself longing for some of the idiosyncratic touches that have enlivened and sometimes even irritated me in her earlier films: the inspired Buñuel parody that turns up in the middle of The Portrait of a Lady (1996), for example. Campion has spent six years away from the film world since In the Cut (2003), and she seems to have returned to it a much more cautious artist. The movie begins by presenting Brawne in a way that jibes with Campion's earlier constructions of "difficult" heroines. But there are, sadly, no stylistic quirks in Bright Star to distinguish it in any way as a Jane Campion film. Thus the movie, though admirable in many ways, is never very exciting.
There’s another slight problem: the movie’s insistence on creating what feels like a highly contrived kind of conflict. Contemporary biographies and biopics alike specialise in offering reductive versions of people, and here Keats’s great friend and collaborator Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) comes to function as Bright Star’s villian, as Campion engages him in a tussle with Fanny over Keats’s mortal soul. It’s not even a fair fight: Campion is so clearly on Fanny’s side that the silly scenes in which Brown attempts to intercept the lovers' communication come off like rehashed, under-heated bits of The Piano (1993) - with Brown placed in the Sam Neill role. (Schnieder’s over-emphatic, erratically-accented performance also stacks the odds against his character from the start.) Not every movie requires an antagonist; Bright Star, certainly, would have been better off without one.