Bright Star (2009, directed by Jane Campion) recounts the romance between the poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), his landlady’s daughter, in 1818.
I’m not a big poetry fan, but I do love biopics of writers and poets; I also like to indulge in a good love story now and then. True to the Romantic spirit of the times, this one soared to spiritual heights, a love that seized them both to an almost painful degree. Perhaps it was so painful because it was platonic; Keats was a poor poet with no income who could not hope to marry Fanny. They both observed the propriety and mores of the time, not indulging in physical passion, but subverting it into something almost holy.
At first, the two don’t seem a likely pair. Fanny is a typical girl of the time, who enjoys fashion (she’s quite serious about designing and making her own outfits, embellishing them with over-the top flounces and ruffles) and flirtatious banter; Keats is the stereotypical Romantic poet, a bit rumpled and daydreamy. Fanny knows nothing at all of poetry, but something about him transfixes her, and she wants to understand it. He offers to teach her about poetry, and they spend more and more time together, which isn’t too difficult since they share the same building, each living in one half of it. As they fall in love and and become consumed with one another, Fanny’s preoccupation with fashion falls away (her outfits become simple and pretty), and Keats spends less time with his writing partner, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). though his poetry begins to blaze with his love. Brown is at first jealous, and it causes some discord between the two men. Brown is a bit of a cad, impregnating one of Fanny’s servants, but there’s a genuine regard, perhaps even love for Keats, beneath the irreverence and sarcasm.
It’s clear to all that Fanny and John are deeply in love, but everyone also knows he’s not fit to marry. Naturally this doesn’t affect the lovers one bit, but I was surprised that Fanny’s mother (Kerry Fox) does very little to discourage the relationship. She simply watches in mute sadness as Fanny whiles away the hours mooning for her love and obsessively reading his love letters when he leaves for the summer; Mrs. Brawne even notices but ignores a puncture wound on her daughter’s wrist. She’s remarkably calm about the whole thing, but perhaps she’s worried that forbidding the relationship would only send her daughter over the edge.
Inevitably, John becomes ill and is sent to Italy by his friends. On the night before he leaves, there’s a touching scene where they hold each other; Fanny states that she “would do anything for him,” hinting that she’d make love with him, but his gallantry is complete, as he refers to his “conscience”. Perhaps he can only see her as a Muse, rather than as a physical woman, but their love remains pure and sweet. Not long after, Brown returns and tells them that Keats has died (at age 25). Fanny walks the heath in mourning, reciting his verse over and over.
Campion’s film is spare, understated, yet bursting with the paroxysms of violent love. Snippets of Keats’ immortal lines are interspersed throughout but you never feel bludgeoned by inscrutable poetry; over the credits Ben Wishaw recites the Ode to a Nightingale, and you really don’t mind so much.
One of Keats’ lines states that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” and this movie is certainly a thing of beauty and a joy to watch.