A “Bright Star” In the Big Black Sky Of Period Romances?

I know that as the proud owner of a pair of ovaries, I am supposed to bow down and worship romance movies … especially those of the Victorian variety. The heroines in crinolines, the men in coattails, the accents and ornate interiors—all of these are supposed to trigger in me some nostalgia for what love is supposed to be. And yet, I hate period romances. Seriously, they utterly and thoroughly depress me. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate them the way I do rom-coms. I just find them to be dangerous, like keeping too much ice cream in the freezer. I’m not susceptible to romantic comedies because I know they are just a bunch of fanciful BS. But during “Little Women,” I imagine that I am Josephine March, a struggling female writer inspired by love, family, and transcendentalism. In “Sense and Sensibility,” I am Marianne Dashwood falling insensibly for the dapper Mr. Willoughby. And, of course, I am Elizabeth Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice,” resisting but eventually succumbing to Mr. Darcy’s charm. These female characters are witty, willful, and romantic—fighting against upbringing and convention to follow their hearts. And for some reason, putting the stamp of the historical past on their stories makes me put aside my skepticism about the naive idea that love conquers all. After each sickeningly perfect happy ending, I am left feeling ill with gooey sentimentality.That’s why I have a bright glimmer of hope that Jane Campion’s new period romance, “Bright Star,” will be a beacon of light in the dark night of this genre. The film takes place in London in the early 1800s and follows poet John Keats’ love affair with Fanny Brawne, a seamstress who lives next door. Even though the two are an odd match, when Keats offers to teach her poetry they fall into deep, maddening love. Fanny inspired some of his most beautiful poems, including “Bright Star,” from which the film takes its title.

If anyone is able to bring the right balance of depth and tragedy to a period piece without making us sick, it is Jane Campion, who’s most famous for “The Piano.” I became obsessed with her after I saw “Holy Smoke,” a film that takes us on a journey with a young woman who is tricked by her family into leaving the spiritual cult in India of which she is a member. When her family hires a cult exiter to help her regain her identity, we literally watch two people unravel. The film is odd and offbeat, but moved me in a way that I have no words for. Why? Because Campion takes the idea of identity and the exploration of it and rips it open—peeling back the layers to reveal all that is unexpected, unknown, and unseen and then putting all the pieces back together again. I am longing for her to work her very magical destruction/reconstruction on the idea of romantic love in “Bright Star.” I’m sick and tired of swooning to death.

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