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Poetic romance

Movies | Whishaw and Cornish shine in the remarkable Bright Star

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

John Keats wrote two things that never seem to work out when taken together: that a thing of beauty was a joy forever, never passing into nothingness; and that he feared he'd never see his love again after he died.

In Jane Campion's remarkable, affecting romance Bright Star, Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his counterpart Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) undertake to unify their passion with painful reality by hoping for a better world, this one being full of obstacles to their affection like tuberculosis, poverty, and Keats' overprotective friend Charles (Paul Schneider).

There is a shameless chastity animating this PG-rated film, making its every scene almost overwhelmingly sensuous (the brief kisses the couple shares are breathtaking) and yet shaming Charles as he seduces the maid and flirts with Fanny. "Why do you not bed her?" he asks Keats wonderingly. "She'd do anything you wanted." Keats replies, but the reply is secondary: Campion has informed us so intimately of the love passing between these two characters that Charles' suggestions of sex seem cheap before Keats even has a chance to cheapen them further.

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Around the couple, Campion has set Fanny's loving family, concerned both for her nice friend and for Fanny, who grows ever more attached to the prospectless young man, who died at 25 with few sales and little critical encouragement. Best and funniest is little sister Margaret, or "Toots," played by Edie Martin, great-granddaughter of legendary theater director Peter Brook.

And, of course, there is the gorgeous poetry, read by Whishaw and Cornish in their intimate moments to greater cinematic effect than any other possible expression of love between these two characters. Campion and her photographer, Greig Fraser, complement these verbal images with loving shots of Fanny's modest dresses, the flowered countryside, and the estate around which the film is shot.

It's a focused movie, concerned (like most period romance) with furtive looks and microscopic scandals. But its perfect sincerity, its oft-expressed hope of a world to come in which love will never yield to death, make it warm, inviting, and sexy in the best possible way.

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