For Cornish, Bright Star was a chance to work with a woman who is both a hero down under and one of the most acclaimed directors in film. “Jane has this amazing ability to create a world,” says Cornish, who had met her only once briefly before auditioning for the role of Fanny. “It’s almost like you can feel the breeze. You can smell the flowers. You can sense the cold.”
Bright Star recounts the story of Keats and the young woman he was smitten with until his death, in 1821, of tuberculosis, and its intellectual sensibility makes even relatively highbrow movies like 2007’s Atonement seem made for the masses. Campion depicts daily life in Georgian England with a scholarly attention to detail, and the literary script, which she wrote herself, may appeal to the most persnickety English professor. And as for the public’s interest in such refinements? The film’s premiere in Cannes was a highlight of the festival. “People seemed to love it,” says Cornish. “They seemed to absorb what you hoped they would absorb.”
Campion first stumbled onto the love story by chance while she was researching a different film about a writing teacher and happened to pick up a biography of Keats. The dusty history leapt to life with Fanny’s entrance, and Campion admits to sobbing when she got to Keats’s death. She went on to read the poet’s letters to Fanny and realized they were an “incredibly detailed portrait of a love affair” that could be told onscreen.
“Keats had laughed at romance as a distraction from the things that mattered, like poetry,” Campion says during a phone call from her home in Australia. “But then he fell in love. He wrote Fanny the most beautiful love letters that exist in the English language. They naturally record an excessive outpouring of emotions, but Keats had the skills as a writer to describe them.”
Cornish recalls that she was equally swept away when she read Campion’s script. “It was just beautiful,” she says. “You melted away into that world. The love story, the loss, Fanny’s character, that all felt very real to me and very alive.”
As a consummate Romantic heroine, Fanny may seem to be a role custom-made for an English rose like Keira Knightley. Campion acknowledges that a big star would have made finding financing easier, but she decided that a less famous presence might suit the story better. (“I love Keira Knightley,” says Campion, “but she’s done so much that she seems to our collective knowledge much older than she is.”) What’s more, Campion notes with delight, a New Zealand–born director working with an Australian actress to tell this particular tale is actually the epitome of historical accuracy.