TORONTO — Sometimes, it’s the more subdued role that requires the most stamina from an actor.
Just ask Bright Star lead Abbie Cornish, who had to portray a variety of emotions but often in subtle ways as Fanny Brawne, the feisty 19th century fashion student who fell hard for English poet John Keats before his untimely death at age 25.
“There were times when I was incredibly tired and incredibly worn out,” the Aussie beauty said recently during publicity rounds for the romantic drama at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“We shot six-day weeks and I was there pretty much every day, all day long, and Sunday I would just rest.”
Helping her re-fuel, she said, were the sensuous landscapes and ethereal romantic touches created by illustrious director Jane Campion, who also wrote the film that opens Friday in Toronto, Ottawa, Guelph, Ont., and Victoria, B.C.
“When we were making the film, my senses became really heightened,” said Cornish, 27, who has racked up rave reviews for her role since the feature was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
“I just felt like the natural elements I was so much more aware of: flowers, bees, butterflies, their whole world sort of came alive.”
Such organic touches blanket Bright Star, from Greig Fraser’s lush cinematography and the restrained rapture between Fanny and Keats (Ben Whishaw), to Campion’s fine-spun incorporation of his poetry and the authentic sets in Bedfordshire, England.
“There was no studio, no built sets, nothing fake — everything seemed very real, you could touch and feel everything, and as an actor I love being in environments like that,” said Cornish, whose breakout film was 2004’s “Somersault.”
“Sometimes you don’t know where the energy comes from but it comes from connection to all living things … it made the film always seem so real.”
For Campion, the film’s nuances reflect inner changes throughout her celebrated career, which has seen her win the Palme d’Or for helming 1993’s The Piano, as well as an Oscar for penning the film’s screenplay.
“When I was a bit younger, it was just … wanting to show off, wanting to impress, being shocking, being provocative, not having the confidence, really, to take the time in my own heart and body,” said the director, who is known for focusing on women in her films.
“I think you’ve got to find it in your body to be slow.”
Campion hatched the idea for the film several years ago when she read a biography of Keats, who died in 1821 and wrote the poem that inspired the movie title. She even took up sewing as she learned about Fanny’s love of stitching.
Bright Star opens in Halifax, Montreal, London, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Sudbury, Ont., on Oct. 2. It will open in Calgary and Edmonton on Oct. 9.