John Keats was one of the first figures whose inspired work and tragic life paved the way for the celebrity culture we live in today; he helped put the romantic in Romanticism.
So it’s surprising that Hollywood has taken this long to put his life on film. Well, not Hollywood exactly. New Zealander Jane Campion (“The Piano”) has written and directed “Bright Star,” which was made in England with an international cast.
It certainly feels like a Hollywood film, though, albeit one with intelligence. The focus here is not on Keats’ poetry or philosophy but rather his doomed romance with next-door neighbor Fanny Brawne.
The sumptuous film opens in Hampstead, near London, in 1818. The Brawnes have an illustrious new neighbor, the promising young poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw). Fanny (Abbie Cornish) designs and sews her own clothes and prepares a virginal white number in which to meet him.
She’s not intimidated by his genius. “My stitchings have more admirers than the scribblings of the two of you put together. And I can make money from it,” she boasts to Keats and his wealthier friend, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider).
Fanny picks up a copy of his just-published epic, “Endymion,” and is entranced from the first line: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” Keats seems entranced from his first glance. The usual barriers rise between the couple — her mother (Kerry Fox) doesn’t wish her to become attached to a penniless poet, while his friend doesn’t wish the penniless poet to become attached to a woman.
“You’ll be slaving at medicine for 15 hours a day,” Brown says to the former physician’s apprentice. “And for what? To keep Mrs. Keats in French ribbon.”
These considerations aren’t what separate the pair, though; tuberculosis does. Keats is dying, and he must decide whether to stay in England with his beloved and probably die, or seek the better climes of Italy without her — and probably die.
“Bright Star” is a beautiful film, filled with the glories of nature and man that inspired Keats. The costumes and locations are striking, as we expect from a costume drama, especially one about a woman who took such pleasure in making lovely things. More arresting is the music. Mark Bradshaw has arranged music almost of the time — Mozart — for voice, including his own pure one. It gives this film about grand people an intimacy suited to the story it tells — and it might be the way these people, without orchestras, heard such music.
The acting is just as concentrated. Miss Cornish is sly and charming at once, while Miss Fox brings great presence to her concerned mother. Mr. Schneider, an American, is the perfect gruff and rakish British gentleman, who redeems himself somewhat with his own love for the poet.
The film belongs to Mr. Whishaw, though. His thoughtful and affecting portrayal makes an otherworldly icon also a flesh-and-blood man. One wishes he had more of that man with which to work. Keats’ letters to Fanny are some of the most astonishing ever put to print, but we hardly hear any of them here. Neither do we see his obsession with his own death, other than a line here and there, as when he wrote to Fanny, “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death.”
At the end of the film, a title tells us that Fanny never took off the ring Keats gave her. It implies that she remained true to him until her own death — but she went on to marry and bear children. She left her letters from Keats to them, and her son sold them at auction after his parents died. The letters shocked Victorian society and ensured the continued celebrity of the haunted man who wrote them.
TITLE: “Bright Star”
RATING: PG (thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language and incidental smoking)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Jane Campion
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
WEB SITE: brightstar-movie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
• Kelly Jane Torrance can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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