September 25, 2009 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'Bright Star' -- GRADE: C

'Bright Star' pretty dim as a love story

Abbie Cornish plays Fanny Brawne and Ben Whishaw is John Keats in "Bright Star," which lacks much plot beyond their tepid romance. (Apparition)

A high-minded butterfly of a film, "Bright Star" takes the notion of romantic idealism to its furthest limits. That it's based on a true story gives it some historical heft, but those with even an ounce of cynicism running through their veins may be taxed.

Directed by Jane Campion ("The Piano") with gauzy purpose, "Star" recounts the early 18th-century love of the struggling, sickly poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) for his young, fiery-for-the-time neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).

He was an impoverished fellow with grand flowery ideals, she a beauty whose family needed her to marry for money. They yearned openly for one another with the passion of a 1950s teen ballad, but it would have been ungentlemanly of him to propose, since he had nothing but his weak heart to offer.

And that's about it plot-wise. Paul Schneider co-stars as Charles Armitage Brown, Keats' fellow poet, friend and benefactor, and a little bit of triangular tension develops, but the film mostly lingers on the longing couple as they walk through woods, discuss aesthetics and -- gasp! -- hold the occasional hand.

Campion turns this into a study of "pure" love, and some of the lush images she captures do seem more painting than film. The delicate question becomes whether watching paintings and listening to poetry is enough.

The less delicate question is whether the whole thing is beauty or bore. Cornish brings undeniable feisty passion to Fanny, while Whishaw is appropriately sallow, one of those beautiful people who are constantly dying.

Still, for a film about love, "Bright Star" is curiously cold, more pretty than emotional. True stars have heat.