The poet John Keats is one of the heavies in the second generation of the Romantic movement, along with Shelley and Byron. It probably helps that he died at the tender age of 25 from tuberculosis. Keats had modest success during his lifetime, wasn’t very popular with the critics and had trouble making a living in general.
Jane Campion’s movie Bright Star (2009) takes its title from one of his poems. It focuses on Keats’ (Ben Whishaw) poetry and his relationship with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).
Keats meets Fanny when he’s staying with his friend Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider) who is sharing a house in the country with her family: Mrs Brawne (Kerry Fox), Toots (Edie Martin), Samuel (Thomas Sangster). At first gaze, Fanny is a fairly shallow young lady, more interested in fashion than in poetry. She carries on a fairly antagonistic kind of flirting with Mr. Brown, but takes to John when she hears that his brother Tom (Olly Alexander) is dying of tuberculosis.
The relationship develops into a romance, but one never really fully consummated into any kind of marriage because Keats doesn’t have the means to marry. The expectation that a young lady should never attach herself to a gentleman of no means is what causes problems here. One simply did not marry for love. And there’s a lot of social commentary there, the whole social structure so often seen in Jane Austen’s novels, brought to the fore of this otherwise perfectly gorgeous movie.
Visually this movie is stunning. Hampstead, where the story takes place, has all the bucolic charm a romantic poet could possibly wish for, and Campion has gone out of her way to make sure that the visuals complement and underscore Keats’ poetry.
Several of his most famous poems are read in voice-over and also in the interaction between the characters and, being and old student of literature, I am very happy with the way they are read. There’s nothing camp or overly sentimental in the readings, and that’s not an easy trick to pull off. There’s an earnestness to the reading of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” for example, that shows the depth and honesty of the poet. He had death as a constant companion, and expressed it in his writing in a way that could easily become melodramatic and corny to modern ears if handled badly.
All this, the stifling rules of Keats contemporary society, the unrealized love between Fanny and Keats, the death of the young poet in Italy, where he was sent to recover – it could make for very sentimental fare indeed in the hands of a less capable cast and director. Ben Whishaw gives meat to his characterization of John Keats. He is by turns funny, dreamy, and seemingly weighed down by his constant mortality salience. Abbie Cornish gives her portrayal flesh and bone and shows that Fanny is not just a social butterfly who likes to dance and flirt and preen and pose. She has depth and heart, which are necessary to understand why she becomes so fascinated with Keats and with his poetry. Jane Campion treats the story with tenderness and the unavoidable tragedy of the young poets death is handled with decorum. We are spared the deathbed scene and instead we are shown how Fanny receives the news of Keats’ death and how her heart breaks, which is even more poignant.
This is a slow-paced, beautiful and intricate piece of work. It’s carefully constructed and pays attention to detail, everything from the looks of the house to the garments to the butterflies Fanny captures and keeps in her room is premeditated and still understated. The performances are likewise multifaceted and rich. And it’s heartbreakingly gorgeous, which should appeal to any cineaste.