By Andrew Harwood

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

The famous words by John Keats, the ill-famed and tragic romantic poet, bring light to the idea that beauty lasts forever, even if something is beautiful to no one but yourself. 

Life is about finding the beauty among the wretched, the good within the bad and the purpose amid the fault — and what greater thing to encapsulate such a feeling than film. Films are expressive mediums because they aim to express not just emotion, but a story. 

That’s why for this week on Cinephilia, we will be focusing on a film that truly aims to look at the beauty in life, through the lens of Keats himself: Jane Campion’s “Bright Star.”

Written and directed by Campion and released in 2009, “Bright Star” chronicles Keats’ last few years of life, played by Ben Whishaw, and his relationship with Fanny Brawne, played by Abbie Cornish. Through love, burdens and, above all, beauty, Campion depicts the story of one the greatest poets to have ever lived. 

Having taken its title in homage to one of Keats’ works, “Bright Star” is characterized by dark yet warm colors that work in conjunction with the beautiful imagery of the English country and estates.

This film posits the notion that something can never truly be taken out of just what is initially given, or from the surface of a film. By surface I am referring to one thing: what we see on-screen.

A film is like a body: the initial appearance of things on the screen is the skin, the thing everyone sees; the dialogue is the heart and brain of a body, something people recognize but may not understand. 

Again, the film’s compositional elements, which a viewer audibly and visually takes in, work in conjunction with the words that are spoken. Together, these two elements create our viewing experience — one that doesn’t necessarily urge for interpretation, but hopes for it.  

Campion progresses her film in an almost poetic form as she starts off strong with great detail, transitioning slowly yet fluidly into the heart of her context — this being the relationship between Keats and Brawne — then further delivers a crushing heartbreak, as we watch helplessly, wanting more. 

This technique is quite remarkable, given that many filmmakers attempt to make such “poetic films” but never seem to do so rightly. Campion manages to pull it off because she relies on her script and not the surface of her film. Style and appeal are commendable, but again, words are what drive us to understand the pure and actual emotion of what we are seeing.

Of course, imagery can be more powerful than words in some cases, as Cornish’s uninterrupted two-minute breakdown proves, but words serve as the bond, the bridge and the link. 

It should be noted, too, how incredibly rich the film is in not just story, but emotion. Given this,  I warn those easily prone to crying that this film’s ability to evoke emotion should not be taken with a grain of salt. This isn’t a bad thing, though, because a film should be purposeful and meaningful.

We watch Keats and Brawne laugh, dine, flirt, play and travel. Then, we witness the sorrow of lovers separating in the heart of winter, until a beautiful reunion brings us back to a euphoric state.

I don’t want to spoil this film, so I will refrain from detailing the heartbreak that will follow, though saying this might already do that. But, returning to my earlier point that beauty lies everywhere and lasts forever, this film serves as a perfect example of this concept.

Given that the quote is from Keats himself, maybe Campion was a bit too clever for our own good. After all, “Bright Star” is indeed a biopic on Keats and Brawne, but past that and past the surface, it’s about both of their legacies. What they had was beautiful, and will forever remain a joy. 

A picturesque portrait of one of the most celebrated men to lay pen to paper, “Bright Star” succeeds in being a lot more than just that.