The period drama may be renowned for its indulgence, but Jane Campion’s portrait of the fragile love affair between Fanny Brawne and John Keats makes the poetic feel almost touchable. Laura Venning explores the minimalistic beauty of Bright Star.
For fans of Jane Campion, Bright Star was shocking in its innocence. The filmmaker was no stranger to the period film, having directed the Palme d’Or-winning The Piano in 1993 followed by The Portrait of a Lady. But Bright Star showed a dramatic tonal shift. The Piano and Portrait are dark, gothic melodramas that explore transgressive female sexuality and its escape from the confines of corsets and petticoats. Bright Star tells the fragile but passionate love story between seamstress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), before his untimely death from tuberculosis. It’s a delicate and understated romance, in which not even a button is undone.
Period dramas are often accused of indulging in lavish costumes and interiors. As early as 1991, the popularity of the refined, emotionally restrained period dramas of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory prompted a critical backlash. Craig Cairns in Sight and Sound described the period drama as “drowned in elegance,” and “in danger of turning into a parody of itself”. Bright Star’s Regency setting, its romance and connection to Britain’s literary tradition align with the staple of the period genre: the Jane Austen adaptation. And yet, its aesthetic doesn’t rely on displaying costumes and sets like museum pieces. Through the film’s use of space, both interior and exterior, Campion reimagines the period genre by stripping away the opulence and making the poetic feel almost touchable.
The film begins with tight close-ups of a needle and thread pushing through fabric. This not only introduces Fanny’s work as a seamstress, but also emphasises needlework as one of few creative outlets for women during the Regency era. Campion reveals Fanny sitting by a window in her nightgown, sewing as the dawn breaks. It’s a beautiful but austere shot: her figure provides focus in a space dominated by plain white walls. The white curtains that hang at the window and a trinket on the sill are all the decoration that the room offers.
A wide shot then establishes the Brawnes’ modest house in Hampstead village. It’s surrounded by other near-identical houses, every chimney puffing out smoke, and is fronted by a field full of heaving washing lines. There’s no garden or path leading from the front door, only bare ground where hens wander. The house where Keats rents rooms is a little grander with its carved fireplace, dark wood furniture and paintings on the walls. Yet the decorative features don’t distract from the narrative; art punctuates rather than covers the walls. The film’s most decadent sequence is a ball where Fanny and Keats meet for the second time. The room sparkles with candlelight, but the pale walls and stone floor are undecorated. The spectacle of graceful but prim couples dancing in period costume is balanced by this restrained aesthetic.
This minimalism never diminishes the beauty of the interiors. Campion and cinematographer Greig Fraser keep the camera still during interior scenes, and let the action play out at a gentle pace. Fanny is often observed from a distance and placed in doorways, framed within the shot as if she is the subject of a painting. Wide shots and deep-focus cinematography were used in Merchant-Ivory films like Howards End to display as much period detail in the background as possible, but in Bright Star they display an austere beauty – plain walls, plain floors, little furniture. The lack of refinement lends a sense of authenticity. Regency life wasn’t all ballrooms, bonnets and grand country estates. With society denying them the freedom to earn their own living, women’s day-to-day lives were severely limited. There’s a sense of stillness, of seasons slowly passing and women having to occupy their time with quiet domestic work.
The natural world brings Keats’ poetry to life and lends the film a different kind of visual splendour. Instead of trying to dramatise the process of writing, Campion crafts sensuous scenes that visualise his poems through nature. Keats climbs a blossoming tree barefoot in search of a nightingale’s nest (a nod to his Ode to a Nightingale) and settles himself among the top branches, lying back and closing his eyes as if about to ascend into the clouds. This is mirrored by Fanny reading one of his letters and lying down in a woodland carpet of bluebells, immersing herself in the flowers and in his words. She is overcome by love, and kisses her sister’s rosy cheeks. Keats’ lilting voiceover creates a sense of melancholic beauty. “I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days,” he writes, “three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”
Perhaps Bright Star can’t be thought of as a conventional period film as it derives so much of its spectacle from nature, yet its modest interiors and lush exteriors are bound together. Translucent curtains waft in the breeze, in the drawing room Keats softly kisses a pillowslip Fanny has embroidered with a tree, and, as if casting a spell, Fanny fills her bedroom with live butterflies. Love blooms within the walls of the house. But inevitably, summer ends and butterflies have to die. Fanny and Keats have no money so cannot marry, and Keats’ health is failing. Minimalist interiors and poetic images provoke a sense of transient love which cannot withstand harsh reality.
Bright Star was praised by some critics for being unlike traditionally rote period dramas, and criticised by others for its conventionality in relation to the rest of Campion’s career. Martha Polk for MUBI called it “disappointingly conservative, and made so only by the mindful feminist triumphs that play out in her previous films”. Bright Star may not be as outwardly radical as The Piano or The Portrait of a Lady, but its fascination resides in its subtle reworking of familiar period iconography. The tranquil setting acts as a dreamlike space where Fanny and Keats’ ethereal yet deeply human relationship can blossom, and the transcendental nature of poetry can be visualised.
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Laura Venning (@laura_venning) is a Film Studies MA student and writer based in London and Norwich. She's particularly interested in female filmmakers and in Australian and New Zealand cinema and has written for Reel Honey, Much Ado About Cinema and Screen Queens.