At last, we saw "Bright Star," Jane Campion's exquisite re-creation of the John Keats-Fanny Brawne love affair. Keats scholars, particularly Christopher Ricks, blasted Campion's portrait of Keats as unrealistic and historically false. However, I found it engaging and respectful of the poet's literary stature, despite some clunky dialogue and implausible scenes.
The film certainly affords Brawnes a more sympathetic view than has been given her in the past. She's shown as passionate, creative, caring and highly sympathetic to the dying Keats. In posthumous writing by the Keats circle, especially those of Charles Armitage Brown, she received blame for the bitterness of his last days. In some accounts, she is shown as cruelly rejecting Keats. In some of his letters to her, which bring little credit to him, he lashes out at the girl. Her letters to him were destroyed after his death.
The film, taken from Andrew Motion's massive Keats biography, gives a contrary view to the traditional one inculcated by Keats' friends, showing her as deeply in love with thepoet until the end, even offering to go with him on his final journey to Italy. Brown comes off as repulsive and arrogant, a person who condemned Brawne after Keats' death to counteract criticism of his own callous treatment of his friend.
I didn't complete Motion's book, so I can't testify about how closely the film matches Motion's view of Brawne and Keats. Long ago, I read Jackson Bate's wonderful biography of Keats, and I rececently read Stanley Plumly's fine study of Keats' life and reputation, but the Keats-Brawne passion is not of central interest in these works. Plumly's portrait of Brown matches the one given by Campion.
My wife's and my enjoyment of the film was heightened by memories of our trip to London a few years ago. We traveled to Hamstead to visit Wentworth Place, the Keats house, where most of the action in the movie occurs. The film scrupulously adheres to the house's layout, including the primitive but appealing basement kitchen. The movie also accurately depicts the great Hampstead Heath, a London jewel, where my wife and I wondered along wooded paths once enjoyed by Keats, Brawne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The film stars Ben Wishaw, who played Bob Dylan and Keith Richards in previous movies. I like his portrait of Keats, although he's a bit of the stock poet from central casting. Although he makes the attempt, Wishaw falls short of showing Keats' intellectual and philosophical depths. Abbie Cornish makes an admirable, fun-loving, vivacious Fanny, especially in her lovely costumes, designed by herself, according to the movie, but actually, we know, created by a designer who received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination.
With all of the lovely views of nature and 19th century fashion, the most sumptious part of the film is readings of Keats' poems, including "Ode to a Nightingale" and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The sonnet "Bright Star" is OK, but it's not among my favorites. To me, the overly wrought conventional love poem only shows the sadness of how Keats' powers declined at the onset of his illness.
A reading of the famed prologue to "Endymion" brought back my disgust of a few years ago at opening the fourth edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry to discover that "the prologue" had been removed to provide space for obscure women poets of the era. I support Campion's feminism in showing Brawne in a positive lght, yet still regret the loss of Keats' prologue in service of the feminist project of the Norton Anthology, edited by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallsworthy.
Beyond the look at Keats and his circle, the movie gives a splendid glimpse at life in early 19th century Britain, when nature was still fresh and teeming with wonder, and the Industrial Revolution had not yet irrevocably changed society. In some ways, that life is more appealing than ours in the 21st century. However, the first blood coughed up with the onset of tuberculosis was a death sentence. Our medical system might be flawed, but it's come a long way from those primitive days when a doctor's treatment only made death all the more certain.