Keats the Lover

A compelling and sensual portrait of England’s poet through the eyes of a young girl who fell in love with him

Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw in Bright Star, inspired by a biography of Keats by Andrew Motion | Photo: Caroline Hewitt

Bright Star is an account of the courtship of John Keats and Fanny Brawne – played by Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish – a story that revels in vicissitudes of romantic love and the allure of its poets. It is a British/Australian/French co-production directed by Jane Campion who wrote the screenplay, inspired by the biography of Keats by Andrew Motion. The film’s title is a reference to a sonnet dedicated to Brawne that Keats wrote in 1819 which begins with “Bright star! Would I were stedfast as thou art.”

The film is a very compelling, beautiful and sensual telling of Keats the lover, as experienced by the young girl who fell for him. It is also a deeply felt and intelligent film, in which Campion displays a mature mastery of her skills and craft.

Sensitive and passionate, Fanny Brawne is depicted as a force of womanhood to be reckoned with and Cornish brings this character to life with an accomplished, invigorating and naturalistic performance. Brawne is the dominant character in the film; the story is primarily told from her viewpoint, aligning our perspective with hers. Because of this, Whishaw’s performance as the poet tormented by love, poverty and illness, while convincing, is constrained and rarely emerges from Cornish’s shadow.

Still, understatement could be said to be an essential quality of the voice of the film. So much in this dramatization is carefully understated and paced in a way that allows scenes to slowly and evenly unfold for the audience to take in the detail, the sensation and the mood of the moment. There is no obtrusive or melodramatic soundtrack to distort and hype emotions but rather so wonderful to enjoy the sounds of near silence, the birdsong, the breeze, footsteps in a country lane and the rustle of clothing. We see Hampstead as it was when it was a village on the slopes of north London, almost rural with animals wandering on the heath.

Bright Star begins in 1818, situating Keats in his creative prime, but also in his final three years before he was to die at 25 in Italy from tuberculosis. Keats and Brawne are neighbours that share separate halves of a Hampstead cottage. At the beginning they do not appear well matched, she is interested in fashion and dancing, he is a writer who agonizes over critical reactions to his published work. She is insistent on her own rival skills and artistry as a dressmaker and seamstress, showing off her innovations with elaborate bonnets and her dress with a ‘triple-pleated mushroom collar.’ Initially a little amused and intrigued, she dispatches her sister to the bookseller for a copy of his poem Endymion ‘to see if he’s an idiot or not.’ She then offers to Keats that “the beginning of your poem has something very perfect” before complaining that the rest of it is not as good.

The couple eventually falls in love much to the distress of Keats’ grumpy and possessive friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) who is determined to maintain the bachelor idyll where he and Keats are absorbed in musing and writing. Keats and Brawne become absorbed in their own world in the way that lovers do, eager to be in proximity to one another and intoxicated by the electricity of stolen kisses and hands that fleetingly touch. Although Brawne’s mother is liberal when it comes to her daughter’s happiness, a marriage with a penniless poet cannot be encouraged.  Keats is in debt and love has to be sacrificed to social conventions, money worries and competing male loyalties. The relationship between Brawne and Keats also follows the moral code and remains chaste, and whilst there is some repugnance at Brown’s philandering with the house maid, when she has his baby there appears to be little outrage.

As to Keats’ poetry, Campion deliberately scatters only brief fragments throughout the telling of the story; for her the true poetry in the film is in its visual imagery, a ravishing cinematography that is captivating. The scenes with the butterflies in the bedroom and another of the fields of bluebells, for example, produce what must be some of the most beautiful and exquisite imagery ever to be seen on film.

When Brawne lays on her bed intoxicated by her love for Keats, a perfectly timed breeze sweeps the cotton curtain over her body as if this is a physical love caressing and washing over her. When she places her hand on the wall that separates her bedroom from Keats’ and he simultaneously does the same on the other side, there is not only a passionate current that runs between them, there is also a beautiful tenderness.

In this defiant and ennobling film, Campion reflects on the fleeting nature of life and captures the promise of lives at the beginning.

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