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Bright Star (PG)

A deft treatment of John Keats's love life

It was the cat wot done it, at least for me. Either that or the rabbit. In Bright Star, the 18-year-old Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is curled up in the window of her mother's Hampstead townhouse, reading poetry by her neighbour, John Keats (Ben Whishaw), with whom she is gradually becoming besotted. A moggie that has been mooching around Fanny's room pushes its boxy head into her book and turns the page in a lazy but insistent gesture.

Hats off, then, to Topper (is it strange to check a cat's name in the credits?), and to Jane Campion for keeping the screen thrumming with spontaneity. Every inch of this film is intimately alive. While Fanny is busy crossing swords with Keats's chauvinistic friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), a girl in the background offers a dozy rabbit to another child to pet. You'll never catch a bit-player rhubarbing in one of Campion's movies, but there's more to it than that: the central love story is fortified by the detail bristling around it.

The romance between Keats and Brawne, which began in 1819, two years before the poet's death, isn't used to explain or corroborate what Keats wrote in that period - the film gives their love its own worth. Campion is more interested in the point where life and art become indivisible, and her stylistic choices are modelled on this idea. Sound and song spill over from one scene to the next, while Greig Fraser's cinematography takes its cue from Keats, who clambers high above the forest floor or reflects on a dream in which he was floating above the treetops. Fraser keeps finding vertiginous camera angles from which to gaze down at the characters through a lattice of branches. This is sometimes referred to as an "eye-of-God" shot. Here it feels more like Keats himself has storyboarded the action.

There's a unique awkwardness reserved for poetry on film, but Campion sidesteps this by handling the poems with special informality. Fanny asks her sister, Toots (Edie Martin), to read Keats's work aloud, so the first excerpt we hear - the opening stanza of "Endymion" ("A thing of beauty is a joy for ever") - is delivered in the child's halting, sing-song voice, before Fanny snatches the book from her hands and silently completes the reading herself.

As Keats, who is 23 when the film begins, Whishaw wears thick, shaggy hair like a cowl and purses his plump lips in the manner of someone sucking jam from a wooden spoon. When he recites a poem, his eyes dart from side to side, as though trying to keep up with a high-speed ping-pong match. Whishaw plays him as a grubby-looking oik, with holes in his socks and an overcast pallor that renders any shafts of sunlight in his mood all the more magical. When he's plodding through a meadow with Brown, their stupor is interrupted by a ball, tossed suddenly into the frame. Keats reaches up and pulls it from the air in a casual movement that makes us aware of his lightning reflexes, his youthfulness.

Even as his health is failing, we see how he is lit up inside by Fanny's curiosity and company. This is an organic screen romance, not a trick of lighting or editing. Neither actor idealises their character: Keats is prone to sulking, Fanny can be maddeningly irrational. But they do convey the pull of mutual intelligence and how it shades into attraction. Much of the momentum in this largely plotless film comes from Cornish's uninhibited vitality. Her excitability sometimes exposes the Australian accent she has worked hard to conceal, turning "poems" back into "pomes". But it would be a stony heart indeed that did not forgive the actress this lapse, especially in the light of her work in the final scenes of the film, when her hands make shapes in the air as though trying to describe the contours of grief.

For what it's worth, Bright Star is already my favourite of Jane Campion's films. It has the dream logic of The Piano, the crazed inventiveness of Holy Smoke, the forensic detail of In the Cut. It's a reminder not to take for granted this director, who has spent her career pulling rabbits out of hats, nor to commit the same slight against love.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro