BRIGHT STAR (director/writer: Jane Campion; cinematographer: Greig Fraser; editor: Alexandre de Franceschi; music: Mark Bradshaw; cast: Abbie Cornish (Fanny Brawne), Ben Whishaw (John Keats), Paul Schneider (Mr. Charles Armitage Brown), Antonia Campbell- Hughes (Abigail O’Donaghue), Kerry Fox (Mrs. Brawne), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Samuel); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Jan Chapman/Caroline Hewitt; Apparition; 2009)
“Impressive conventional and competent PBS-like biopic on the romantic poet John Keats.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
New Zealand arthouse filmmaker Jane Campion (“Two Friends”/”The Piano”/”Sweetie”) is writer-director of this impressive conventional and competent PBS-like biopic on the romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw). It covers the time in 1818 when the struggling poet was 23 and lived in bucolic Hampstead Village, North London, and rented the house next door to the fashionable composed teenager Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). The odd couple began a cautionary bourgeoisie three-year romance, living within the social constraints of the period through a romance consummated only through love letters rather than in a biblical sense, despite her lack of interest in poetry and his lack of interest in fashion. The poet taught her poetry and they bonded even closer when they witnessed the death of his younger brother Tom to tuberculosis. This blooming romance caught his cynical witty roommate and fellow struggling poet, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), by surprise and disturbed Fanny’s caring single-parent mom (Kerry Fox), who worried that the poet had no income to support a wife. After publishing his great poem Endymion, which was mostly criticized by critics, Keats developed tuberculosis and in 1821, at age 25, died penniless and unknown while with his friend Joseph Severn in Rome as he tried to fight the illness by living in a warmer climate. The ill-fated poet thought of himself as a failure, but posthumously became recognized as a major poet of the Romantic Movement along with the other notable Romantic poets of the time Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The poet’s love for Fanny resulted in his most passionate verses, including the poem “Bright Star,” which was used as the film’s title. Campion does a good job covering this relationship, making Fanny more than just a muse, sticking pretty close to the known facts, as it moves deftly from one arthouse tableau to another
Keats was a major influence on me when I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s and helped me find the magic of poetry as a trip down a mysterious and exciting path with endless possibilities. I have fond memories walking around Washington Square Park as a 19-year-old with my first serious girlfriend and that we would read to each other Keats and live in the moment inspired by his moving visionary poems. It was a new language for me that I wholeheartedly embraced, though after that brief period I was to leave Keats and not seriously read him again when swept away by the poetry of Blake, Rilke, and many of the modern poets of the time that spoke the language of the cultural revolution that was to come about in the late 1960s. Keats, however, remained as an ‘eternal youth’ that I always had good feelings about and considered a trailblazer in visionary poetry.
I guess that’s my way of saying Bright Star had an integrity that I could readily accept and the actors were all brilliantly cast but, nevertheless, it lacked an exuberance that I always associated with Keats. I just think the dramatics can’t be faulted but the film really only came alive for me when the poetry was read aloud and I could use my imagination. I realize it’s difficult to get a poet’s life on film, as I can’t think off-hand of too many poetry films that were great–as most failed to translate that well to the big screen. Yet I can’t help wondering what a more experimental or innovative modern director like a Paul Cox, a Guy Maddin or, the Martin Scorsese of Kundun, would do with such material to see if they can get to the sublime reverie of Keats–something, I don’t think, Campion achieved despite all her good intentions and all the pic’s good production values and ability to make the poet a thoroughly sympathetic and human figure and by giving the film an artful meditation on the fragility of life.
History tells us that Fanny married and had three children and one of her sons sold the love letters Keats sent her and she thereby became rich off this love letter romance.
REVIEWED ON 10/11/2009 GRADE: B+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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