Bright Star opens Friday in select theaters

It’s clear from the density of technique and nuanced imagery in her new film that Jane Campion is one of the finest directors in the world.

Campion’s first feature film since 2003’s smart, underrated thriller In the Cut is the story of the love affair between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), 1818’s version of an edgy fashion designer. Cornish’s sharp portrayal of Fanny as an artistic young woman vulnerable to love but little else gives the film a contemporary feel that helps connect us with the characters, something that can be difficult in films that take place two centuries ago.

Most of the action takes place in and around the house that Fanny’s family moves into, where Keats also lives on the dime of his friend and collaborator Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider, having the time of his life). The pace of Bright Star ambles along, luxuriating in John’s malaise and poking around the corners of the rambling house that he and Fanny occupy. The only real narrative of Bright Star is drawn along the maps of these two young hearts, and the unrushed flow that Campion gives the film makes it believable. Rather than pushing these two lovers together, Campion gives the impression that she’s simply put them in place and let their relationship play out as they see fit.

That’s not to say that Campion isn’t controlling the action. She has a masterful hand, and in Bright Star even moments of simple beauty are more complicated than they seem at first. At a picnic, Fanny and John wander off alone into some high reeds that give them a romantic setting for some much-needed privacy. The frame fills beautifully with vertical stripes, as Fanny and John try to lose themselves in the field and in each other. But when Fanny’s little sister Toots wanders after them, the edenic tableau turns into an intimidating one: The tall reedsseconds ago symbols of the lovers’ respite from the worldturn to harsh obstacles in the way of an innocent girl. Toots calls out for Fanny but doesn’t dare wander off the short grass into the towering field, and there is a heartbreaking trace of fright in her voice.

Campion’s removal of the camera from Fanny and John in this moment is telling: Bright Star is not only about falling in love, but about the effect it has on the other people that John and Fanny love. We want Fanny and John to find an oasis without chaperones, but we feel equally for little Toots. Campion’s ability to instill these seemingly conflicting emotions in her audience is both complicated and breathlessly effortless.

Bright Star is not perfect, particularly during the lengthy voiceovers of the letters exchanged between Fanny and John, and the numerous recitations of his poetry that I found myself tuning out. Still, they’re not invasive or pedantic as most voiceovers tend to be, and if I didn’t think the rest of the film was near perfect, I probably wouldn’t complain about them.

Still, any brief stretch of the film could serve as an example of the efficacy of Campion’s filmmaking. Bright Star is loaded with so much to admire and unpack: Campion’s masterful use of cutaways, the eerie distance the camera often takes from the characters, the way that Paul Schneider’s plaid suit makes him look like a bearded child bounding around the house in his pajamas. Space doesn’t permit individual assessments of all of these things; let’s settle for marveling at how easy Campion has made it to rave about Bright Star, one of the best movies of the year.

The actor Paul Schneider, a North Carolina native, will make appearances on behalf of the film: This Friday, Sept. 25, he will introduce the 7 p.m. screening at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, and he will answer questions following the 7 p.m. screening at Raleigh’s Colony Theatre.

Correction (Sept. 23, 2009): The name of the character Abbie Cornish portrays is Fanny Brawne.