First, what I found troubling about this movie is that there was little or no friction. By friction, I mean conflict. I just didn't see what the two lovers were so afraid of (besides their nebulous feelings for each other). Fanny's mother is not overbearing and I didn't notice any significant perils in their relationship. In "The Piano," Ada and the men in her life were mysterious and there was such a sexual charge in their encounters together. One is drawn to Ada's story because she is exceptional: she is mute, repressed, and rebellious. "Bright Star" does not really contain exceptional material. In simplest terms, it is a boy-meets-girl tale of first love set in 19th century.
Next, the acting didn't draw me so much. Abbie Cornish was a wonderful actress, however, and I do think she made full use of her role. However, her role wasn't complex enough and I think it could have been written better. Cornish was very expressive, but because there wasn't an explanation of the conflicts (if there were any to begin with) she had to overcome, we didn't know how to place her emotions. For example, her mother seems rather liberal in allowing her to mix with the young Keats rather than fear for Fanny's standing in society. We also don't know anything about her family: there's no indication about Fanny's family's class and wealth. With regard to acting, Ben Whishaw delivered a good performance as Keats and I think I shall remember the poet based on my impression of Whishaw. Still, there was an uncertainty in his portrayal. I wonder to what extent this had to do with the character and what extent it had to do with the actor playing the character. This question would have been clarified if we had been given a better introduction regarding the conflict and setting of the story. As far as the other actors are concerned, they were unremarkable, nothing but "types" rather than rounded characters with unique and realistic conflicts. Again, all the main characters in "The Piano" are unique, unforgettable, and very complex (and I am a Victorian/Postcolonial scholar).
As the movie did not have a proper conclusion regarding Fanny, it negated the centrality of her character in the movie, if not the title. At the end of the movie, we see Fanny cutting her hair, wearing mourning clothes and walking out on the heath as her brother follows her. The writing on the screen blandly notes that Fanny was seen walking on the heath and that she never forgot Keats. It does not contain any statement about how she survived, how she continued living, and how crucial she was to the remembrance of Keats--essentially, for the reason Campion made this movie in the first place. It is as if the story ended just as Keats' life ended, and indirectly, as if Fanny's life ended with that too.
I wanted to see more about Fanny as a woman. I especially wanted to see more of her sewing because I think that's where the real jewel of the story lay. Sewing is given prominence at the beginning of the movie, when Fanny emphatically defends the act of sewing and tells Keats that it is inferior to writing poetry and that she can make a living from sewing while Keats can barely do that from poetry. What appears to be a promising theme in this film is soon aborted and after about the first quarter of the movie, it disappears and I forgot that Fanny was a great seamstress. I was disheartened to see that Fanny swears that she will not sew anymore when Keats leaves her: this is unlike Ada, for whom playing the piano is visceral.
In "The Piano," the message was that women needed to be free, that silence can be a power, that starting life in a New World involves honoring and discovering artistry. But in "Bright Star," the point seems to be that young people fall madly in love (very cliche), that poetry is drawn from real experience, and that death can come at any time. Um...right. So what else is new?
But I will admit that the film had many virtues, besides the few I alluded to earlier. For example, some film techniques and cinematography worked. The close up of the actors' faces that allowed the viewer to discern their physiognomies and thereby discern their inner turmoil; the jarring contrast created by the continuous juxtaposition of light and dark, shown through the contrasting colors of fabric used in the costumes and lighting in the room contrasted with the dreariness of the landscape outside; the reading of the poetry, the lilting quality of the voices, the "sensuousness" of imminent death.
Overall, I wanted to love this movie, to rate it as exceptional, as I did its predecessor. A strong supporter of Campion's work, I expected this film to delve deeper into feminism and art, and as a consequence, am perhaps a harsher critic of this work. A little more conflict and better set up could have helped this film truly shine as the star in its title.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars.