Verdict: The ultimate love story - without a sex scene.
Jane Campion's preoccupation with the romantic impulse finds its most mature expression in this fabulous film about the brief relationship between poet John Keats (Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Cornish), the girl next door who became the love of his short life.
Making her first feature outing since the fascinating and underrated In the Cut, Campion provides a masterclass in passion on screen. And paradoxically, she does so by reining everything in. For a film about a fabled love affair involving a man who was the very embodiment of the passionate romantic, Bright Star is a work of exquisite restraint. It oozes patient composure from every frame. Beyond the magnificent production and costume design, the superb lighting and cinematography, it's a work of supreme emotional intelligence, by a filmmaker who understands Keats' line - she puts it in his mouth in the script - that "there is a holiness to the heart's affections".
The really smart thing is that Campion has made a film about Brawne, not Keats. The sonnet that gives the film its title calls her "steadfast" and it's her steadiness that complements his wild fancy. She remains the film's emotional epicentre, even as she falls under the spell of his poetry which she says at first is "such a strain to make out". They are the original opposites who attract.
Ravishing close-ups of needle and thread under the opening credits introduce us to Brawne as a thoroughly modern miss: more than a seamstress, she's a designer - we'd call her a fashionista now - who has a finely honed sense of style and doesn't need a poet to tell her that beauty is truth and vice versa. She's also feisty and contrary: she plainly dislikes Keats' friend and writing companion Charles Brown (a waspish but soft-centred Schneider) and yet she'll flirt with him when it suits her purposes.
There's the hint of a feminist reading here and Campion's Brawne is certainly no sighing girl. But she blossoms into a woman for whom love is a triumph, not a concession. In a delicately handled exchange before the dying Keats leaves for Rome, the film shows the extent of her devotion and it lends an almost majestic power to her later grief.
The performances are beyond praise, and not just of the principals. Fox is marvellously generous-hearted as Fanny's mother and Campion shows she's not lost her touch with children as she extracts magic from newcomer Martin as Brawne's kid sister. Meanwhile cinematographer Greig Fraser comes up with compositions that Vermeer would have killed for.
But Bright Star is finally and magnificently much more than the sum of its parts. Easily Campion's best film, it deserves to be remembered as one of the best films ever about love.