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09.15.09

Telling the Story of Keats' Love Connection

Jane Campion’s Bright Star, a Cannes favorite, marks the director’s return to film for the first time in six years.

In 1993, when she made The Piano, Jane Campion became only the second woman in history to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. This year Campion has a chance to be nominated again for Bright Star, the 19th-century love story that seduced audiences at Cannes and is being released Friday. It’s even possible that Campion could be competing against another woman—Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker.

Campion hasn’t had a box-office success since The Piano, and she hasn’t made a film in six years, which she insists was a deliberate choice. “After In the Cut I stopped directing, with the thought that maybe I wouldn’t come back to it,” Campion says. “I have a daughter, and I wanted to spend some quality time with her. Directing is quite intense. You can get very locked into it, and it’s difficult for anything else to make its way into your life. I was really interested to know what would happen without working.”

“Directing is quite intense. You can get very locked into it, and it’s difficult for anything else to make its way into your life.”

When Campion finally decided to return to filmmaking, it took her a while to settle on the right story. She was toying with another project when she picked up Andrew Motion’s biography of John Keats. “I was avoiding writing and looking for distractions,” Campion confesses. “I found this big, fat biography of Keats, and I thought, by the time I get through that, maybe I’ll be able to go back to work.”

Instead, she found her next project, though she recognized the built-in obstacles. “I felt, why do I have to fall in love with this story about a poet and his very young girlfriend? I knew it would be really difficult to get funding for a story like this, which seems so out of step with the modern world. But it just didn’t leave me.”

Campion decided to tell the story through the eyes of Fanny Brawne, the strong-willed young woman who inspired Keats’ most passionate poetry before his death at the age of 25. Although the Romantic poets might inhabit an episode of Masterpiece Theatre, Campion was determined to steer clear of what she calls “a Beatrix Potter world, with cute costumes and hats.” Variety film critic Todd McCarthy, writing from the Cannes Film Festival, praised Bright Star for “breaking through any period-piece mustiness with piercing insight into the emotions and behavior of her characters.” While it is beautifully crafted, the film also achieves fierce intensity as it brings us astonishingly close to two young people experiencing romantic turmoil for the very first time in their lives.

Campion took a chance by deciding to remain true to the mores of the era: Keats and Fanny share a love that is never consummated sexually. Campion’s earlier movies— In the Cut, Holy Smoke, and The Piano—were frankly erotic. Here she made a deliberate choice to steer clear of sexually explicit encounters.

“Unconsummated love affairs are perhaps the most poignant and most remembered of all,” Campion argues. “I really think what people are looking for is some soul connection or love connection. A lot of dating today begins on the Internet where people have the safety of just swapping words and ideas and thoughts. That’s pretty good evidence that physicality is actually intimidating to many young people. What I responded to in the biography was this amazingly pure, innocent love.”

The key to encouraging audiences to accept this unfashionably chaste love story was to find actors who exuded sexual chemistry even with their period costumes firmly in place. Campion settled on two relative unknowns—Australian actress Abbie Cornish and British actor Ben Whishaw. To complete the cast, she enlisted American Paul Schneider to play Keats’ Scottish confidant. “The worry was that none of the cast would be English,” Campion says with a laugh. “Thank God Ben was perfect, and he speaks the poetry so well.”

Campion admits that the film would have been easier to finance and market with better-known actors, but she felt these newcomers would add to the credibility of a love story about two people in their early 20s. In devising the visual style for the film, Campion collaborated closely with set and costume designer Janet Patterson, who has worked on every one of her films since The Piano. "We know each other very well,” Campion reports. “The conversations can be very to the point. We don’t have to nurse each other’s egos along. I can say, ‘That dress makes her look pregnant. Help me!’ Or she’ll say, ‘Why do you have her hair like that? It’s ridiculous!’ It’s important to have someone on the set who just tells you exactly as it is.”

Exhilarated by her return to filmmaking, Campion expects to pick up the pace. She is already working on a couple of new projects, including an adaptation of Alice Munro’s story  Runaway. Even her daughter approves of this burst of activity. “She said to me recently, ‘You’re much better when you’re working,’” Campion laughs. “I’m too dreamy when I’m not busy.”

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Stephen Farber is a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter. He has written reviews and articles on film for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Movieline, Esquire, New York, New West, and many other publications. Farber has written four books on film: The Movie Rating Game ; Hollywood Dynasties ; Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case ; and Hollywood on the Couch .