Written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano), it focuses on one slice of the short life of poet John Keats. And if that last sentence caused your eyelids to droop, know that even those interested in poor, consumptive Keats have a rough road ahead.
The story focuses on the romance, such as it is, between Keats (Ben Whishaw, last seen flouncing his way through a remake of Brideshead Revisited) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish of Stop-Loss), a savvy, fashion-mad girl who makes her own frocks and isn't afraid to spar with men. She bickers constantly with her flirtatious neighbor, writer Charles Armitage Brown (the excellent Paul Schneider of NBC's Parks and Recreation) but is wholly entranced by the more serious Keats, who comes to live with Charles because he needs a place to stay. Poets can't possibly work for a living, you see. They need time to gaze out at the world and ponder and otherwise engage in poet-like behavior.
Unfortunately, this does not make for particularly compelling cinema, and Bright Star never truly delves into what drives a man like Keats. There are worse things than watching pretty people quote lovely lines to one another, but Fanny's verbal battles with Charles are a great deal more intriguing than her cooing over Keats; Charles turns out to be something of a rogue, but at least he's got a bit of life to him.
Keats, we learn, can't marry Fanny because he is too poor, and that's the only real stumbling block to their love, at least at first. Her mother wants to break the attachment, but she needn't worry. What she can't accomplish, the damp English winter will.
Had there been any sort of spark between Cornish and Whishaw, the central plot of Bright Star might have shone as brightly as its unerring attention to period detail (Hampstead Heath has never looked so realistically shoddy). A director can generate non-explicit sexual attraction in a period piece: Watch Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, and tell me Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennet don't long to rip off one another's pantaloons.
As it is, though, our interest in this chaste courtship languishes all too soon. A thing of beauty may well be a joy forever, but in this case, it's got to do more than just lie there if we're meant to feel deeply about it.