Bright Star (2009) is a film of such tender, unguarded emotion, about such honest, bare affection, it could be written off by an immature viewer as a flight of romantic fancy. This would be a grave mistake. It is one of the truest cinematic documents of the human heart’s joys and losses committed to film in recent memory. It is a film of tremendous visual largesse, showcasing a director and filmmaking team in perfect sync and at the height of their powers.
The film tells the story of the courtship of Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) with his neighbor, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), when both are in their early twenties. Keats is under the sponsorship of his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), a poet of greater means but lesser talent, and both rent half of a house that is occupied on its other side by Brawne’s family–herself, her mother, and her younger brother and sister. Brawne and Keats meet, flirt, and slowly but inexorably fall in love, much to the chagrin of those around them. Keats has no money, so Fanny’s mother fears for her future if she falls for him. Brown, recognizing his own meager talents (and charms), hangs on Keats’s affections and fears being left behind if the pair wed. Eventually, the failing health of Keats intervenes. Those familiar with the Romantic poets will know they didn’t tend toward long life, and Keats, unfortunately, was dead of Tuberculosis by the age of 25. Bright Star chronicles the love between Keats and Brawne with such earnest vulnerability, such delicate flagrance, it can feel like we’re intruding. Those viewers who have forgotten the throes of discovering love might find its romantic notions juvenile, but they are anything but. What this film displays are the unprotected, unapologetic emotions that accompany the fierce and inconvenient discovery of one human heart by another.
To match the emotional power of the film is its visual mastery. Bright Star is full of such vibrant color, such sumptuous compositions, and such flawless and skillful framing. Every shot is full of so much color and texture, it feels like watching a moving painting. And Campion’s diegetic framing is flawless and yet entirely organic to her shots. Look at these perfect examples:
The film also does remarkable things with focus. A very shallow depth of field is used for most shots in the film, and the focus is adjusted so precisely it plays an active–though subtle–role in the non-verbal dialogue of the scenes. Look at this sequence of shots from an emotionally intense scene after Keats has returned from an extended trip (Click on each shot to enlarge for better clarity). The first shot has Brawne in focus in the foreground, with Keats out of focus just a few feet beyond her:
Seconds later, with no dialogue, the two exchange a glance. A thin tension between them is holding back an ocean of words and emotions, and John is waiting for the more expressive Fanny to direct the exchange. The lens is adjusted for just a second to bring his face into focus, leaving hers in a soft haze:
The camera then refocuses on Fanny, leaving a blurred Keats to nervous uncertainty behind her, though he is–barely perceptibly–more focused than he was before their shared glance:
The shifts are never telegraphed to the audience in a showy way, and the scene works just fine even if you miss them, but they are there, and they are there for a reason.
The shallow depth of field is used elsewhere in the film to subtly hint at the camera’s attentions. In this cleverly marked shot early in the pair’s relationship, Fanny’s face is as close to us as John’s is, though the latter’s is obscured. We can see his face, however, in the mirror behind Fanny, though the added distance puts him out of focus there (click to enlarge) :
Despite the fame of John Keats, and the fact we only know who Fanny Brawne is because of her doomed love affair with the poet, Fanny is our main character in the film. She is our point of view character, and she is the camera’s main subject. More than that, she becomes Keats’s main subject, his Bright Star. The film’s title comes from one of his best known poems, which he wrote while in love with Fanny – “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art.” But he isn’t. He is physically fragile, as his young death attests to, and he is every bit as emotionally exposed and volatile as she is. And he spends far less time in sharp focus in the film than Fanny does, even when they share the screen. How else can you study a star than with the incredibly precise focusing of a finely tuned instrument? What else is the pen of a great poet? The film’s depth of field, and the objects and faces brought into and out of focus within it, are keenly used tools in Bright Star.