Bright Star (2009) by Jane Campion
Retro Review by Diana Rogers
In 1818, at Hampstead Village, London, John Keats met Fanny Brawne. Their ensuing romance, which lasted until Keats's death in 1821, is the basis of Jane Campion's Bright Star.
Though he'd studied to become a surgeon, John Keats eventually set his medical ambitions aside in the hopes that he might earn a living as a writer. Amongst his circle of friends, his poetry was greatly admired, but the outside world was less enamored of the young Romantic; the full measure of his genius went almost entirely unacknowledged until after his death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. In Bright Star, Fanny Brawne herself is initially far from enchanted with Keats's artistic output. A clever, quick witted young woman with a fondness for dancing and a talent for sewing (she designs and makes all her own clothes and is known around Hampstead as something of a fashionista) Fanny is pragmatic and honest to a fault. When the subject of his poetry comes up during one of their first exchanges (she has just purchased, and attempted to read, his newly published Endymion), Fanny is plain spoken with regard to her feelings about Keats's work: simply put, she doesn't get it. She obviously has an eye for beauty and an artistic flair but it doesn't extend to the written word. Or at least not to his written word. "I'm not clever with poetry," she confesses. To which Keats replies "Neither, it seems, am I." However there is no denying that Brawne is taken with the brooding young writer, and he with her.
Although she considers poetry "a strain to work out,” Fanny asks John if he might teach her how to understand it. "I'd like to understand," she tells him, "I don't know how to begin." Keats agrees to give her lessons (affording them both a convenient excuse to spend time alone together), but instructs her that "A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake. To luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out; It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery." One of the great achievements of Campion's film is its creation of tension between understanding and acceptance. From a practical point of view, Keats and Brawne have no business falling in love. He is not earning a living from his writing and is deeply in debt, largely staying afloat thanks to the assistance of charitable friends, so he is in no position to propose marriage. She is the eldest child of a widowed mother who should be devoting her time to the dancing and party circuit, where she can cross paths with more desirable suitors who have less dismal prospects. But what if the point of being in love is not to find a happily ever after, but to "luxuriate in the sensation" of being in love? Bright Star is not just a story about a doomed love affair, it is an exploration of the sensation of being in love. The movie doesn't make light of the many impediments its ill-fated lovers are confronted with, it acknowledges them, but it also refuses to concede to them, all but defying the viewer who would deny these two young people what few happy moments they are allowed together.
It would be difficult to find better words to convey John's feelings for Fanny than his own, and Campion, who also penned the screenplay for Bright Star, makes effective use of Keats's writing, incorporating both his poetry and his letters to Brawne into the story. But Campion also understands the impact of quiet moments, and compliments the film's text with some truly arresting imagery that all but transports the viewer into the headspace of the characters. When viewed through the prism of their love, the world around Fanny and John radiates warmth and beauty. A curtain billowing in the spring breeze, a shaded field of bluebells nestled in the woods, a butterfly perched delicately on Fanny's finger as she reads – all of their surroundings seem to thrum in celebration of the lovers' affection for one another. If this all sounds a bit too precious, perhaps it is. There is something precious about this story, and the way in which Campion chooses to tell it, but the director never allows the material to become drippy or saccharine. It is a movie that respects the emotional turmoil and ecstasy of its characters' interior lives and conveys those feelings with an earnestness and sensitivity that never feels cheapened by over sentimentality.
Bright Star also benefits from an excellent cast, who bring their characters to vibrant life with uncanny believability. In a movie filled with quiet moments, so much is conveyed through a reaction, or a movement, or a stolen glance. While the dialogue is exquisite, you could probably watch this film with the sound muted and still be able to follow the action based on the actors' facial expressions and body language. Ben Whishaw's performance as John Keats is so subtle, in fact, that it's almost in danger of being overlooked entirely. That sounds like a criticism, but it actually works to great effect when you consider Keats as a man who's more at ease writing about beauty, romance, and love than actually experiencing them for himself. And from a practical standpoint, it's not at all convenient for him to be in love. His time and energy have been divided between his work and being the sole caregiver to a dying younger brother. Keats didn't come from money, and writing isn't some private passion he can idly indulge in his free time. It's not enough that he's good at it; he has to be a success, or he can't hope to continue writing at all.
Whishaw plays John Keats as a man who falls in love with Fanny Brawne almost against his will, or at least against his better judgement. In his scenes with Abbie Cornish, who plays Fanny, Whishaw plays Keats as a man who's deeply in love, overwhelmed at times by his feelings, even, but also detached from them. No matter how deep his devotion to Fanny there's a part of Keats that's always somewhere else. Almost as if he's looked ahead, knows the situation is completely hopeless, and is looking back, wistfully, on their romance from some future date. He is both in love and beyond it.
By contrast, Abbie Cornish plays Fanny as a woman who is fully present at all times. Like Keats, she is not naive about their circumstances; she simply digs in her heels and refuses to give up. When Keats tells her, early on in the movie, that his poems are not selling well, but he still has hope that he might make a go out of being a writer, Fanny replies that hope is a beautiful thing but cautions that "Hope and results are different. One doesn't necessarily create the other." Fanny's a realist who doesn't shy away from the severity of their situation, but she's also incredibly stubborn, and when she falls for Keats she falls hard. There is another scene early in the story, after John's younger brother Tom has died. Fanny has only recently met John, hardly knows him, and didn't have a chance to know Tom at all, but she is devastated by the news of his death. The reason, of course, is that she is devastated for John, because she's already formed an attachment to him. She turns to what she knows best – sewing – and embroiders a pillow slip, which she presents to John, telling him it's for Tom. John, clearly moved by the gesture, tells her he will rest his brother's head upon it. Fanny has a reputation for being a flirt, and it's tempting to dismiss this generous, compassionate display as that of an overwrought, impetuous young woman. Does Fanny actually love Keats, or does she simply enjoy the drama of being in love? By the end of the movie, after the circumstances have become more dire, after everyone has tried to persuade the lovers to break their attachment to one another, it gets much harder to doubt the sincerity of Fanny's feelings.
In its own way, Bright Star is as much a story about a love affair with poetry as it is about a love affair between two people. And one of the greatest sources of tension in the story is Keats's struggle between his devotion to his writing and his devotion to Fanny. Keats adores Fanny and, by extension, her family, who all but claim him as one of their own (despite their misgivings about his and Fanny's relationship). The Brawnes may prove a delightful source of distraction for the writer but you'll never hear Keats complaining about them. That task falls to Charles Brown, who is not only Keats's closest friend but probably his biggest fan. Brown is played with great enthusiasm by Paul Schneider, and his boorish manner and tireless devotion to Keats's writing and well-being provide a great deal of Bright Star's humor and also one of its most heart-rending scenes. No one is more suspicious of Fanny's feelings towards John than Mr. Brown, who never passes up an opportunity to insult the young woman or have a laugh at her expense. To her credit, Fanny gives as good as she gets, and the barbs these two strong willed characters exchange with one another are a hoot. But Brown's intentions are pure. "You're so far ahead of me and above me," he tells Keats. "Your writing is the finest thing in my life." His methods for keeping Keats focused may be indelicate, but Brown's belief in his friend's genius as a writer is also a fine thing, indeed.
Strip away its period trappings and prestige director and Bright Star plays out, on a superficial level, like many other stories of doomed first love. The couple meets cute, exchanges clever barbs, there's an obvious attraction, her mother is worried, his best friend is incredulous. There are obstacles and misunderstandings, they love each other, then they hate each other, then they love each other again. Then he dies and she must summon the strength to go on without him. The genius of this movie is that it takes a premise that's been done time and time again – by daytime drama and YA novels alike – and transforms it into something that is both accessible and transcendent. It's a viewing experience worth luxuriating in.