AS PORTRAYED IN Jane Campion's Bright Star, John Keats (Ben Whishaw)—degree of talent not withstanding—is virtually interchangeable with any modern-day, slacking, would-be musician/artist/DJ/graphic novelist you might meet at the nearest Stumptown Coffee. The thin frame, angelic face, shabby/debonair wardrobe, and ear-framing hair translate as easily to present-day fashion as does Keats' chronic under-employment. In order to enjoy Bright Star's treacly but pure-hearted romance, it's necessary to overcome the utter refusal of this central character to lift a finger, even in the aid of his own interests.
True to historical events as it may be, it's incredibly difficult to sympathize with Keats' heart-wrenching ineligibility to marry his true love—Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). The only hurdle is his lack of funds, yet he considers it an earnest day's work looking for inspiration by way of dozing on the couch or drifting through a flower garden. It's hard not to be reminded of the well-documented inspirations of manual labor, not to mention the visceral motivational benefits of the occasional well-timed ass kicking. Brawne, for her part in this impossible pairing, has at least the monolith of patriarchy to blame for her inability to control the situation.
Placing all practicality and problem-solving ability aside, Bright Star is a rapturously repressed celebration of unrequited longing that belongs particularly to the fusty annals of British literary history. In love for the three years preceding Keats' death at 25 of tuberculosis, the poet's affair with Brawne was defined by long absences, dramatic gestures, earnest written exchanges, and bursts of tears. Drawn in the manner of a Jane Austen character, Brawne as the lippy, fashion-obsessed love interest is warmly relatable, and takes home the prize for coolest dramatic gesture when she begins farming butterflies in her bedroom.
For all its stealthy pacing and demanding tantrums, Bright Star is admirable in its own extremity of being: a long interplay of delicious tension to be appreciated by those sensitive to the emotional depths of patience.