They say that writing about poetry is like dancing about architecture. How much more awkward is it then to make films about poetry? Is that like performing opera about filmmaking?
Jane Campion tries to make Bright Star as much about the work of poet John Keats as about his life, which proves to be as successful as dancing about architecture. Characters in the film even explain why; they say poetry must be savored. Cramming it into a movie, or reading a poem over the end credits won’t do.
Fanny and a Lexicographer
Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is a seamstress. Her family rents a room in a cottage to Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw). Keats and Brown collaborate on poetry and drama.
Brown sees Fanny as a mere flirt, but she has fallen in love with Keats, and vice versa. Brown never comes to trust Fanny. In fact, he does his best to keep Keats and her apart. Nevertheless there is a slow courtship. Keats would gladly propose to Fanny but has less than no money. He cannot in good conscience propose because she’d probably accept, and then he’d be the source of her ruin.
Keats comes home from a trip to London coughing up blood. His concerned friends raise money to buy him passage to a milder climate, to Italy, in the hopes that it will keep him alive.
Bright Star is polished and pleasant. There are no villains, not even Mr. Brown, who wants to keep the lovers apart. Schneider’s performance, one of the best supporting roles of the year, balances Brown’s acidity toward Fanny with genuine concern for Keats and his work. And Keats is interested in his work. With Mr. Brown’s assistance he finds as much joy in writing as he does in Fanny.
The relationship between Keats and Fanny is not as passionate as one might expect from a movie about a poet and his muse. There may even be a hint that, were they to grow older together, they might grow apart. But their love has no time to yellow, sag, or atrophy. Maybe an untimely end to an unconsummated affair is what it takes to become a great romantic poet.
In any case, if you are interested in Keats’ poetry, you’re better off studying words than motion pictures, including this one. But if you’re just looking for a costume drama with some unconventionally vivid characters, then this movie is what you’re looking for.