The 19th century gentlewoman Fanny Brawne might have been lost to history were it not for her love affair with the great romantic poet John Keats. Most certainly, Brawne would have been lost to the Twitterati generation were it not for 27-year-old Abbie Cornish's interpretation of her in Jane Campion's "Bright Star," which chronicles her attachment to Keats, who died of tuberculosis at 25. The film opens Friday.
"They seemed like two peas in a pod," Cornish says of the couple. "The sense of humor, the sensitivity that was in her was also in him. That was a very rare thing to run into a man like that for her. She grew up in the country. She was just very enthralled by his zest and enthusiasm, and his appreciation of beauty and the smaller things."
As portrayed by Cornish, Brawne is young in years but not in maturity, and is filled with unexpressed brio. From her first audition, Cornish brought unusual strength to the role, says Campion, who has created vivid female characters in such films as "Sweetie," "An Angel at My Table" and the Oscar-winning "The Piano."
"She was very different from the way others played the character. They were scared, a little wounded," says Campion, explaining that Cornish played Brawne "mentally very healthy. A little young. A little bit of a fashionista, a little ridiculous. Then [Fanny] found her moral courage and strength. She falls in love. It was very winning. You look back on the audition tape and couldn't watch it without falling in love with her."
On a recent Saturday morning, Cornish showed up for tea at the Chateau Marmont, not far from her home in Los Angeles, where she's lived for the last year. She wears a simple black structured sundress, her hair freshly washed, and radiates a kind of farm-fresh wholesomeness.
It turns out Cornish actually grew up on a 170-acre farm along with four siblings and a brood of animals, including a baby kangaroo that slept in a sling hung from her doorknob. "Casey Rooster was his name. It was like having a dog in kangaroo form. You could call him from across the paddock and he'd come bounding up and follow you around," she says with a laugh.
She also seems possessed by a free-spirited, independent quality. This is a girl who stumbled into acting after winning a modeling contest as a teenager, worked in Australian TV, and then upon high school graduation, traveled alone through Europe and America.
"The only time I felt any sort of fear or realization of what I was doing was after my mum dropped me off at the airport," she says. "My mum is so strong and she had tears in her eyes. As a child when you see tears in a mother's eyes, it makes you think."
"I think she shows an incredible amount of independence for someone so young," Campion says. "Fanny is very similar to Abbie. She takes her own advice. She goes against the perceived wisdom of her friends."
Cornish did return from her travels in one piece, and seized the attention of the Australian film industry with her first major role in 2004's "Somersault." In it, she plays Heidi, a sexually inquisitive teenager who runs away from home, a part imbued with an unexpected and heartbreaking curiosity.
Cornish serendipitously found her way into the character when she came across a huge concave metal semicircle -- an art installation at a local gallery. As she walked toward it, she watched her various reflections in the metallic surface and felt the instinct to let out a little song -- "Coo-ee," which vibrated and echoed. "I was like, 'This is so Heidi. She'd sit here and make weird noises and play with it.' I then explored this art exploration as the character. It was such a huge key into her mind frame, and it just came from nowhere.
"Sometimes you have this puzzle" -- a character -- "and you force pieces in," she explains. Other parts are "researched or are history, or what other people tell you. Sometimes, it's just, 'I don't know.' They shift and slide and when you're open to it, it all seems to fall in place."
For Fanny Brawne, Cornish went to the books, specifically Brawne's letters to Keats' sister, and her diary. "That was an incredible love for her. The pain of his death never went away."
There was also, of course, Keats' poetry -- including the work that inspired the film's title, which reads in part: "Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou art" -- and his letters to Brawne.
"You read them and it melts your heart and spurs your imagination," says Cornish, though she adds, "you do as much research and experimentation as you can until you feel like that character is in your mind, your spirit, your skin and your body, and then you trust it and let it go. You let the moments be what they are."