Once a young man dying in a foreign country wrote to a friend about the fiancée he had left at home: “My dear Brown, I should have had her when I was in health, and I should have remained well. I cannot bear to die — I cannot bear to leave her. Oh God! God! God! Every thing I have ... that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.”
The year was 1820, and the young man was John Keats, who, in the decades following his death at 25, became one of the most famous poets in the English language. But the Victorians who embraced Keats’ lush lyrics were disgusted by the frankness of his letters to and about Fanny Brawne, the woman with whom he never managed to consummate his relationship. His raw lust (“I should have had her”) was ungentlemanly.
Now it’s these letters, and the self-aware, struggling mind they express, that bring Keats close to us. This Keats — the scrawny, often pretentious, undeniably brilliant poetry nerd — is the one director Jane Campion attempts to capture in her new biopic, Bright Star. But, less expectedly, Campion makes her main character not Keats but the object of his affections.
As played by Abbie Cornish, Fanny Brawne is a self-possessed young woman who loves fashion (a trait Keats complained of) and makes money selling clothes of her own design. Maybe a century later, she could have been Coco Chanel. But, this being Jane Austen times, Fanny’s only feasible career path is marriage to a man who can help support her widowed mother and younger siblings.
Her high-strung next-door neighbor (Ben Whishaw) is not that man. Keats is penniless, he’s left pharmacy school to devote himself full time to poetry, and his brother is dying of TB — never a good sign. His worldly friend and roommate Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), who knows all this, flirts with Fanny and taunts her, trying to convince her (and Keats) that she’s too superficial to stick with the relationship. But Fanny is enthralled — partly by Keats’ words, partly by his glowing eyes, and partly by the budding spring groves around them, which Campion’s camera turns into a languorous dreamscape.
Story-wise, that’s pretty much all there is to Bright Star until its foreordained conclusion. Working from Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats, Campion doesn’t take daring liberties with the facts. She sticks to filling in the backdrop of everyday life behind the words, giving rich texture to domestic scenes where the poet cuddles the Brawnes’ cat or teases Fanny’s kid sister (Edie Martin). Cornish and Whishaw, both fine actors, have plenty of chemistry fully clothed. But the sexiest scene is one where, with Keats far away, Fanny reads and rereads his letters as she wanders aimlessly outdoors, giving free rein to her imagination.
Bright Star is a stunning film for people who already know this story (and the poems), but Campion could have done more to seduce other viewers. She leaves out useful pieces of context: Where was the rest of Keats’ family? Did Fanny have other, more suitable suitors?
Our only distraction from the lovers is Schneider, who gives a stand-out performance as the jealous Brown. (Jealous both ways — he’s attracted to Fanny and possessive of his talented friend.) There’s a subversive undercurrent to the movie’s portrayal of the two men: Keats put his erotic fantasies on paper and transmitted them to posterity, while the less scrupulous Brown actually fulfilled his. Deferred gratification may facilitate great poetry — but it also puts you, as Campion shows, in a world of hurt.