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Shining stars: Two leads shimmer in Jane Campion's period piece

Bright Star (PG)

2 1/2 stars out of 4

In an age where sexuality in the movies and in real life seems to know nothing of limits, decorum or good taste, "Bright Star" is a (slight) breath of fresh air. In early 19th century England, the idea of kissing or even holding hands in public prior to marriage was considered scandalous and worthy of social banishment.

The relationship between the two leads in director Jane Campion's new film remains chaste throughout as does the escalating sexual tension. Adding to the characters' frustration is the knowledge that they will never marry, mostly because of archaic standards regarding class and wealth.

If this were an hourlong episode of "Masterpiece Theater," the story of the non-affair between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his Hampstead neighbor Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) could have been time well spent. Because it clocks in at two hours, Campion the writer must fill the empty space with other things and most of what she gives us is yawn-inducing, pedestrian filler.

"Bright Star" is the first theatrical release from the upstart Apparition studio and everything about it screams mid-1990s Miramax. Founded by brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, Miramax churned out this type of beautifully framed, self-involved period-piece costume drama stuffed with blistering regularity. The Weinsteins rightfully recognized this prestigious genre as being serious Oscar bait and more often than not, they were right. This movie all but begs for year-end awards consideration.

Even though the film is top-heavy with ornate production design, frou-frou flourishes and overwrought dialogue, it is able to barely land in slightly recommendable territory thanks to the performances of the two leads and one out of place, but welcomed supporting player.

Looking and behaving appropriately wan, Whishaw (one of the Bob Dylans in "I'm Not There") portrays Keats as he was: an introverted, tortured artist type who knew how to turn a phrase. If you are unaware of Keats' ultimate fate, Whishaw makes absolutely sure you'll figure it out in short order.

More full-figured than she has been in previous modern-day roles, Cornish's facial features suggest a cross between Nicole Kidman and Maria Bello and her performance is every bit as good as anything Kate Winslet has ever delivered. Brawne designed and sewed her own clothes and knew how to attract a man but was something of a cynic when it came to true love. Her opinions of romance changed radically after meeting Keats and Cornish handles Brawne's metaphysical metamorphosis with carefully measured precision.

Providing the sand in the Vaseline and the movie's comic relief is North Carolina native Paul Schneider as Charles Armitage Brown, Keats' frequent collaborator and self-appointed personal custodian. Far more animated than those around him, Brown viewed Brawne as a threat to both Keats' creative output and his friendship with the poet.

Schneider inhabits Brown as the ultimate spoiler and protector who mercilessly provokes Brawne, often to tears. Keats does little to discourage Brown's boorish behavior which gives us the idea the men might have been something more than just friends and business associates.

Beyond Keats enthusiasts and corset drama lovers, "Bright Star" is likely to be met with huge public indifference but will likely do exactly what the studio is looking for down the road - snaring that all important, first-ever Oscar nomination. (Apparition)

E-mail Michael Clark at clarkwriter@mindspring.com.