Bright Star contains some of the most sublime moments at the movies this year: A young woman in static repose in her sun-kissed bedroom, breeze fluttering the curtains, her heart and mind opened to romantic love for the first time. Later, the same young woman is seen in a field of flowers, dropping to her knees to read a letter from her would-be love, then onto her back to soak in the thoughts: "I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days. Three such days with you I could fill with more delight than 50 common years could ever contain." Such words later inspire her to convert the room into a melancholy terrarium.
Flowery stuff, but it's filmed with a sturdy, tranquil beauty by Jane Campion (The Piano), making her first feature film in the six years since the disappointing In the Cut. Set in the pastoral outskirts of early-19th-century London, Bright Star follows the brief, unconsummated courtship of unknown poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw, perhaps groomed for the role by his Dylan-as-Rimbaud turn in Todd Haynes' I'm Not There) and literal girl next door Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
The soon-to-be-tubercular Keats is sensitive, mysterious, overly protected by his brash writing partner, Charles Brown (a lively Paul Schneider), but smitten with Brawne, a self-assured, sassy young woman who designs her own clothing. ("My stitching has more merit and admirers than your two scribblings put together. And I can make money from it," she tells Keats and Brown.)
Keats' genius has not yet been widely appreciated, and as is common in these period pieces, finances keep the young couple apart. Keats' poor health and professional prospects ensure he and Brawne cannot marry.
This doomed courtship is not heavily plotted. The story Campion tells takes place over a few years but is still stripped down. Keats responds to Brown's disapproval by telling him, "There is a holiness to the heart's affections. You know nothing of that."
Campion tries to capture that holiness in a succession of quiet, hushed images. But the lack of narrative pull and sometimes awkward attempt to insert Keats' language into the dialogue can make this ostensibly simple film somewhat inaccessible. It's gorgeous but didn't engage me like I felt it should.