The year is 1818, and poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) is unable to shake feelings of failure, teaming up with friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider) to work on their creative temperaments. Enjoying annual residence with the Brawne family, John takes a special shine to seamstress Fanny (Abbie Cornish), and the two commit to a dance of unconsummated passion, holding their affection in private. As time passes, John comes to the realization that he’s unable to marry due to his crushing debt, leaving Fanny in a state of shock, unable to cope with life without her beloved writer.
“Bright Star” is a suffocating exhibition of romantic fixation, but that’s compliment. Campion is tremendous with these aching, grasping displays of heartache and social cruelty, finding the core relationship between John and Fanny fertile ground to mount a tragic tale of lovers unable to indulge their mutual heartbeat. Sections of “Bright Star” excited me immensely, especially moments of pure response between the characters, who must cling to the bondage of period decorum to prevent themselves from exploding from the sheer passion of it all. Campion has the characters clawing at walls, swooning through flowery correspondence, and divided monetarily (the ultimate humiliation). While tightly fenced in by the requisite era-specific emotional sedation, the tempest is palpable at every turn.
The real hangnail of the picture is Schneider, who slips on an indistinguishable accent and indicates his way through the film like a madman. It’s a frightful performance; the character is intended to read as deceitful and jealous of Keats, but Schneider (forever inconsistent) plays Brown as a whimpering goon, prone to unearned outbursts and unchecked method indulgence. Thank heavens the character isn’t around for long.
Discovering pockets of quivering obsession, Campion develops an enthralling rhythm to the feature that helps hurdle the innate immobility of the tea-n-rumor genre. Sadly, the effect doesn’t last long enough, with “Bright Star” pushing its luck by inching to the two hour mark. The moony poetic exchanges are appropriate, but unregulated, and Campion doesn’t know when to break free. She drags out the suffering 30 extra minutes, punishing the characters for their everlasting faith in romance, making sure the speculative John and Fanny love story is branded as one of chest-scratching tragedy, not exceptional perseverance.