AS KEATS BLEATS, WE YAWN; Jane Campion's Comeback Transforms the Legendary Poet into a Pathetic Wimp

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Byline: by Chris Tookey

Bright Star (PG)

Verdict: Dull movie **

A Christmas Carol (PG)

Verdict: Commendably faithful to Dickens ***

BRIGHT STAR is New Zealander Jane Campion's comeback film, six years after In The Cut, her ill-advised venture into feminist serial-killing. She's returned to the costume romance, which won her rave reviews for The Piano and polite ones for The Portrait Of A Lady.

Bright Star records the love affair between teenager Fanny Brawne and poet John Keats, her sometime next-door neighbour in the then unfashionable village of Hampstead, London. It is seen very much through Fanny's eyes, as a chaste but heightened romance.

The film is at its best in scenes that abandon themselves entirely to mirroring the heroine's emotions: while she's lying on her bed waiting for Keats' next letter, when she and John shyly lock fingers and, at the end, when she breaks down on news of his death.

Few directors understand female sensuality and suffering as well as Campion. Even in her first film, the controversial Sweetie, she used the camera skilfully to express the heroine's state of mind. In The Piano, where her heroine was unable to speak, Campion had little alternative but to allow the camera to do the talking.

Campion was wise to cast Abbie Cornish, a fine Australian actress who first impressed in her debut, Somersault (2004). Like Carey Mulligan in last week's An Education, she has no problem playing a girl ten years younger than herself. She, too, may feature in next year's Oscar nominees for Best Actress.

It's a pity that Campion's screenplay doesn't create an entirely convincing character.

Campion likes her leading characters to be arty, so Fanny here is not merely a seamstress but a cuttingedge designer. This enables her to have a different, lovely costume for pretty much every scene, despite living in genteel near-poverty.

The heretical thought kept cropping up in my mind that if she's really that great a designer, she should tell her mother (Kerry Fox) to stop wearing hats that look like lampshades. Where the film really falls down, however, is with Keats. There's a fine line between fragile sensitivity and wimpishness, and Ben Whishaw tramples all over it. He is the drippiest British actor since the Merchant Ivory heyday of James Wilby, and he even managed to drain all the joie de vivre out of Sebastian Flyte in the recent film of Brideshead Revisited.

He's no fun at all as Keats, even before he falls ill. He's dreadfully passionless even though he's monotonously intense. The one attempt at a light-hearted scene, where he entertains the Brawne family at Christmas with a highland fling, is embarrassing.

It can't be right that, in a biopic of my favourite 19th-century poet, for most of the second hour I was longing for him to die.

Keats' friend and long-term victim of his sponging, the volatile Scotsman Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), has considerably more charisma, and his verbal jousting with Fanny is the high point of the first hour. …