John Keats did not lead the most cinematic life. Unlike Percy Bysshe Shelley, he was not expelled from Oxford for atheism, and his wife did not drown herself when he ran off with another woman. Unlike Lord Byron, he was not a prodigious philanderer, nor did he die fighting for Greek independence. Keats wrote and wrote and wrote, before dying, at 25, of tuberculosis. Watching a poet scrawl line after line is not the most fulfilling way to spend time in a movie theater, which is why, despite the success of Il Postino, Shakespeare in Love, and Cyrano de Bergerac, when writers show up onscreen it is usually in the closing credits.
In her 1990 film An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion dramatized the life of New Zealand writer Janet Frame, but later work such as The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady confirmed that Campion is less intent on putting authors on camera than exploring the permutations of feminine consciousness. Bright Star, which derives its title from Keats’s sonnet on constancy, offers a portrait of the famous Romantic poet, but its focus is Fanny Brawne (Cornish), the perky young neighbor who falls deeply in love with him during his final two years, a period of intense creativity and passion.
At the outset of Bright Star, the year is 1818, the setting Hampstead Village, London, and Brawne is a bit of a flibbertigibbet. Clothed in gaudy frippery of her own fabrication, she bounces into the room. “I’m often told I’m clever about design,” she announces. “And I can make money from it.” An impecunious poet who lives on the charity of his friend Charles Armitage Brown (Schneider), Keats (Whishaw) cares as little for fashion as Brawne does for poetry — she pretends to admire the rhymes of Paradise Lost, though Milton wrote his epic in blank verse.
However, the scrawny stranger piques Brawne’s curiosity. She dispatches her brother and sister to buy a copy of Endymion, “to see if he’s an idiot or not.” Convinced that he is not, she pesters the poet for lessons about his art. “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all,” Keats tells her, as if the line emerged as a spontaneous overflow of powerful thoughts, not in a famous letter to John Taylor. As Brawne and Keats become smitten with each other, Campion manages to work in a selection of Keats’s greatest hits; during the course of the film, Keats, Brawne, or both recite “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” The sublime poet has met his perfect reader, except that, as Brawne’s widowed mother (Fox) reminds her: “He has no living and no income.” He also coughs blood.
Bright Star excels at capturing the pastness of the past — the silences and pauses of a world without electricity or automobiles — in which men and women measure time through cotillions, biscuits, and lines of verse. In excruciating restraint, the lovers go so far as to lie together fully clothed. “I have a conscience,” Keats, wary of compromising his marriageable darling, explains. By the time the sappy romance has run its fatal course, Brawne is a much a connoisseur of poetry as the viewer is expected all along to be.•