Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish acquit themselves well as Romantic poet John Keats and his fiancé Fanny Brawne, but Jane Campion’s screenplay serves them poorly. So much for her return to period drama being her great comeback…
Brawne, a middle class girl who makes her own fashionable clothes, falls under the spell of Keats when he moves into her old house. When her family moves back into the other half of the rented house a doomed love-affair ensues. Campion’s feminism, laudable in her other work, destroys this film by its relentless focus on Brawne rather than Keats. Being brutal, Brawne wasn’t the Regency’s Coco Chanel, and Campion fails to make her dramatically interesting. While the BBC’s current version of Austen’s Emma features Emma making lists of improving books to read then cheerfully ditching Milton after 2 pages for more mischief Fanny pretends to read Milton and then limply never does because of Mr Brown’s sneering.
Oh dear, Mr Brown… Bright Star is sunk by its reliance on Andrew Motion’s biography. Keats did live with Scottish poet Charles Brown but this film is dragged under by his presence – he is callous, misogynist, boorish and painfully talentless. It’s never explained why kind-hearted Keats endures this oaf, which leaves the audience assuming it’s purely because Brown subsidises the Cockney Romantic. His status as the poorest but ultimately the greatest of the Romantic poets despite snobbish contemporary criticism is thus rendered alienating rather than endearing. Incredibly Shelley and Byron never appear, two scenes with the artist JH Reynolds defending Keats’ poetry – “there are immaturities to be sure, but there are also immensities” – are all we get to create a sense of the artistic community of the era.
This film feels far longer than two hours because it endlessly repeats its precious few ideas: Keats loves Brawne, Keats is too poor to marry Brawne, Keats is inspired to write better poetry by Brawne, Brawne can’t understand poetry but loves Keats, Brawne doesn’t care that he’s poor, Mr Brown is a jerk to Brawne, Keats defends Mr Brown, repeat and fade… Even the failing health of the consumptive Keats, who died aged 26, only ends up running into this endless loop. One of Keats’ most famous lines, “I have been half in love with easeful Death”, runs like a refrain through the film, yet Campion fails to convey any sense of Keats as marked for doom, or, thanks to her narrow focus on the purely domestic, the loss to literature that his early death was – his achievements are recorded in the Norton Anthology of Literature thus: “his poetry, when he stopped writing at the age of twenty-four, exceeds the accomplishment at the same age of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton”.
Ultimately watching people reading letters while those letters are read in voiceover is deeply un-cinematic. The best of these scenes are the closing reading of Bright Star and, over the end credits, Ben Whishaw finally being allowed to recite the full Ode to a Nightingale. Julian Temple’s Pandemonium, a deeply imaginative and visually inventive 2001 biopic of laudanum-addled poet ST Coleridge starring Linus Roache was a model of how to catch the lightning of poetry in a cinematic bottle. Watching it then reading Keats’ poetry would come closer to appreciating his short-lived but dazzling flame.