To call Abbie Cornish’s astute, china-delicate performance in “Bright Star” a “breakthrough,” as so many critics this year have done, is to do something of a disservice to her similarly remarkable work in a pair of underseen Australian titles.
No informed viewer should be taken off-guard by the tart questioning and quiet sensuality she brings to the role of Fanny Brawne, the teenaged lover of famed Romantic poet John Keats, in Jane Campion’s period biopic.
What’s surprising is that, after winning a bevy of Australian awards at the age of 22 for Cate Shortland’s 2004 coming-of-age drama “Somersault,” and following it up with a searing turn opposite the late Heath Ledger in Neil Armfield’s harrowing junkie romance “Candy,” it’s taken three years for another starring role to come her way.
In that time, Cornish dipped her toe into international waters with supporting roles in ill-fated vehicles like “A Good Year,” “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and “Stop-Loss” – though if those lean years were troubling to the Next Big Thing monitors, they weren’t to Cornish, who had “Bright Star” on her radar all along.
“I was sent the script for the film about two-and-a-half years ago, and I fell in love then and there,” the 27 year-old actress tells me over the phone, gentle Australian twang very much intact. She’s in Los Angeles to pick up her younger sister, before returning to the Vancouver set of Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch.”
On “Bright Star,” she continues: “It’s such a gorgeous piece, so truthful, so beautifully written. It’s about that eternal love that everyone should experience once in their lives – but told in such a mature, unsentimental way.”
Her immediate affection for the script began with Fanny herself. “The story presents so many firsts for her – love, poetry, loss – and she’s so open and new to it all. But Jane wrote her as such a full character. She’s so present, so charismatic, yet at the same time, terribly sensitive and shy. And then her interest in design and fashion gives her another dimension – she’s very alive, spiritually.”
Cornish had portrayed burgeoning teen sexuality in a decidedly more contemporary context in “Somersault,” the film that put her on the map. But while she describes the films as “worlds apart,” the 19th-century milieu of “Bright Star” wasn’t the determining factor in self-described “different lens” she adopted to play Fanny. Indeed, as several critics have noted, Cornish’s is a distinctly modern characterization, unhampered by period mannerisms and shot through with forthright teenage yearning.
“Jane was adamant from the beginning that she didn’t want to make a ‘period film,’ as such, and I completely understood that,” she explains. “Some period pieces can feel quite dense with detail, but this one … it has lungs, a breath of its own.”
“This is a story about real people, acting and feeling is a real, universal way. For me, Fanny’s core was a human one – though she lived almost 200 years ago, you could put her in any era, and her feeling wouldn’t change, even if her social circumstances would. So my approach was just to let her be, to let the period happen around her.”
Fanny’s emotional journey is affectingly counterpointed by a more literal (and literary) education, as her desire for Keats compels her to dive headlong into a world of poetry she barely understands. As a poetry enthusiast herself, Cornish took a keen interest in this side of the character’s development – though as someone initially unfamiliar with Keats’s work, her research partially mirrored Fanny’s own progress.
“I had so much fun doing the research, as he’s such a beautiful poet to explore,” she says, singing the praises of dialect coach Gerry Grennell for helping her find the emphases and cadences in Keats’s words.. “There’s such a sharp dichotomy in the poems – he can explore light and dark in the space of a single verse. You can linger on a line forever. It was a total exploration for me.”
Cornish is, of course, the latest in a rich run of Campion leading ladies, following in the formidable footsteps of Holly Hunter, Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet, Meg Ryan and Kerry Fox, though she admits to feeling no pressure in this regard. “It was certainly an honor to be cast, but I didn’t even think about that,” she laughs. “I just knew working with Jane was going to be awesome – the audition had been kind of a 2-hour workshop, so I already had a sense of what the experience would be like. I was too excited to feel pressure.”
Meanwhile, her current project – Zack Snyder’s wild, female-powered action fantasy “Sucker Punch” – couldn’t be a sharper change of pace for the actress. “I find every project I work on, the tone of the film is reflected in the shoot. On “Bright Star,” the rehearsal was very focused, very methodical, the shooting was very intimate. Next thing, it’s “Sucker Punch” and we’re singing and dancing one minute, firing guns the next … it’s like entering another world.”
As an actor, she cherishes such contrasting, immersive experiences – which is partly why she’s not committed to any future projects at present. “I enjoy the concentration of being completely submerged in one film at a time. I find it very engaging, just diving in and popping out the end of a wormhole. I can’t think or plan too far ahead … I prefer to stay in the moment.”