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Cuddle Porn 

Other than the fact that it's boring, 'Bright Star' is a fine film

Watching Bright Star was like having dinner while sitting across from a couple who are completely in love. "Wow, you guys sure like to touch noses. Umm ... waiter? Can I get some more bread? Waiter? Hello?"

But Bright Star doesn't start out that way, and is actually pretty decent for the first 45 minutes or so. Unfortunately, it's about two hours long, so that leaves a lot of time for cutesy nose-rubbing.

Writer/director Jane Campion is responsible for the gooey and overrated The Piano, which is an experiment in seeing how emphatically angry Holly Hunter can look without uttering a word. It nonetheless cemented Campion's reputation as the premier historical-romance cineaste, and now, a mere 16 years later, she returns to the 19th century to film the story of Fanny Brawne, the woman John Keats loved in the final years of his short life.

Abbie Cornish stars as Fanny. Cornish has been pretty good in everything she's done, and she's pretty good in this, but less good than she's been in the past. There's something about the historical-romance genre that calls for a mannered acting style which doesn't exactly suit Cornish's normally flowing performance. It's also an odd role for Cornish in that she remains fully dressed throughout; considering her previous film roles, I wonder what Campion had to offer her to get her to keep her clothes on.

Ben Whishaw, who plays John Keats, looks like he was computer-generated by combining equal parts Pre-Raphaelite painting and emo-rock boy in an unholy algorithm designed to produce an actor who could only ever play Victorian romantic heroes. He's got the genre style down well enough to stage his way through the performance with a reasonable degree of fluency.

Paul Schneider, who's probably best known to American audiences as Mark on Parks and Recreation, is amazing as Keats' friend Charles Brown. He's got an awesome 19th-century beer-gut, a Scottish brogue that could sandblast the paint off a battleship, and a wild, mean-spirited glare that makes him the toast of this cute-topian fantasy.

All of which does a lot to redeem the movie. Plus, Campion wisely avoids incidental music in the beginning of the film, neatly establishing the silence of the Victorian drawing room. She really captures a time before television and radio, when people had to learn to dance and sing accompanied only by their own clapping and whatever instruments they knew how to play.

However, about 45 minutes in, as Cornish and Whishaw dash across a meadow (yes, they literally dash across what is, in fact, a meadow); the violins rear up, and love makes its appearance. The thing about love is it feels good, but, when it's not in its sweatiest moments, it can be a bit boring to look at.

And Whishaw and Cornish do, literally, curl up together and rub noses. Then they hold hands and do a little hugging and light hair-stroking, followed by some brief and forbidden lip-to-lip contact. So this is basically cuddle porn. And there's a reason that cuddle porn is not a genre.

Other than the fact that it's really boring, though, this is a pretty good film. Campion makes some tremendously strange choices, and they're sort of fun to watch or wait for while you're watching Whishaw and Cornish express feelings through the universal language of snuggles. Like, Campion has a young boy take out a violin, and without showing the scene of him playing the violin, she cuts to a shot of him putting it away. Weird!

Even better, there's a longish sequence wherein Fanny and her preternaturally cute little brother and sister collect butterflies, and then create a butterfly habitat in her bedroom. Then they sit around and think about love as butterflies land on their eyeballs. And when Fanny starts to feel bad about her relationship with Keats, all the butterflies die. I mean, it's not subtle, but at least it's visually arresting. I should note that these appear to be real butterflies, so I'm guessing there's no People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals approval on this movie, but like they say in Hollywood, you can't make a sappy romantic period piece without killing a few Lepidoptera.

Also on the plus side, Campion's script occasionally, and neatly, deflates the film's pretensions by having Fanny's little sister, "Toots," come out with a zinger. For example, when Fanny is feeling particularly down, Toots appears before her mother and says, "Fanny would like a sharp knife." "Why?" asks Fanny's mother. "To kill herself," says the angel-faced Toots. Kids: They say the darnedest things about romantic suicide.

Still, in spite of all these nice touches, Bright Star is not terribly successful at maintaining interest. Keats died when he was still quite young, so it's hard to understand why Campion's movie is so long, unless she was attempting a shot-for-shot remake of his life. In which case, it was kind of her to have edited out most of the scenes of him sleeping.

Bright Star
Rated PG · 119 minutes · 2009
Official Site: www.brightstar-movie.com
Director: Jane Campion
Producer: Jan Chapman, Caroline Hewitt, David M. Thompson, François Ivernel, Cameron McCracken and Christine Langan
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Edie Martin, Thomas Sangster, Claudie Blakley, Gerard Monaco and Antonia Campbell-Hughes

Trailer


More by James DiGiovanna

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What others are saying (5)

Portland Mercury Nothing More than Feelings Bright Star's exercise in sensitivity lacks some sense. by Marjorie Skinner 09/24/2009
Charleston City Paper Bright Star depicts poet John Keats' doomed romance Tenderness may be one of the hardest things to find on movie screens. Hollywood, at least, seems to prefer acrobatic sex and heart-quickening paroxysms of violence. by Felicia Feaster 09/23/2009
2 more reviews...
The Coast Halifax Beautiful Bright Star Jane Campion's poetic romance is wonderfully observed. by Hillary Titley 10/01/2009
Colorado Springs Independent Opening this week Bright Star, Capitalism: A Love Story, The Invention of Lying and more. 10/01/2009

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