(Apparition) Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Samuel Barnett, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Edie Martin, Olly Alexander, Samuel Roukin, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Sebastian Armesto. Directed by Jane Campion
John Keats is now considered one of the greatest poets of all time, but during his lifetime he was almost universally reviled and when he died at the tender age of 25, he considered himself a failure.
Keats (Whishaw) lives with his friend Charles Brown (Schneider), a burly Scot in Brown’s home (a sort of pre-Victorian duplex) in Hampstead, which at the time was on the very edge of London (but today part of the borough of Camden). Brown is disdainful of neighbor Fanny Brawne (Cornish), whose family lives in the other part of the house. He thinks her vain and spoiled, a typical society flirt who has little understanding of poetry and little intelligence beyond what is in fashion and what is not.
For her part she considers Brown a rude misogynist of little talent who has made no money from his scribblings and has no prospects of making any. At first, she finds Keats attractive but like most poets, impractical. She sends her brother Samuel (Sangster) and sister Toots (Martin) to a local bookseller (Ashton-Griffiths) to purchase Keats’ recent publication “Endymion.” This proves to be no problem, as the bookseller had purchased 20 copies and has sold, counting the one to the Brawne children, one copy.
As she reads “Endymion”, she realizes that his poetry may be difficult to understand in places but is leaps and bounds ahead of his peers (Brown, a poet himself, also realizes this). She begins to fall for the callow young man, not so much for his looks but for his soul. This is cemented when she observes him nursing his brother Tom (Alexander) who is dying of tuberculosis.
For his part, he slowly falls for the young woman who is more self-possessed than most women he knows. She winds up being his muse, inspiring some of the most beautiful poetry of all time. Their relationship blossoms despite the objections of Fanny’s mother (Fox) who is concerned that Keats is penniless and has no means of supporting her, and of Brown who simply doesn’t like Fanny and is highly protective of his friend, whose genius he recognizes.
When Brown rents his half of the cottage out for the summer, he and Keats head off to the Isle of Wight where Keats writes ardent letters to his ladylove. Well aware of his social status and the impossibility of a relationship between the two, he moves to London initially but is unable to stay away from the love of his life and returns to Hampstead to be with her. However, their courtship is destined to be short-lived.
Oscar-winning writer (for The Piano) and Oscar-nominated director (for the same film) Campion once again performs both functions on this film. Her task was to create a movie that was as visually beautiful as the words of Keats. She succeeds, mostly using the landscapes of Hyde and Bedfordshire. There is something magical about the English countryside, and the Australian-born Campion captures it like lightning in a bottle. Her characters take long, languid walks in meadows filled with spring flowers and wetlands with dry summer reeds. She also manages to recreate rustic 19th century country village life, as well as the harsh alleyways of London.
Whishaw has the thankless task of portraying the dying, love-struck poet and that’s not nearly as easy a job as you might think. How does one portray a sensitive genius and yet make him accessible to general audiences? If you aren’t sure, just watch Whishaw here. He does a really good job of making Keats seem like a real person instead of an icon, which biopics often do with the poets and authors of the period.
Cornish, mostly known for her Australian television appearances, is a revelation as Fanny. She plays the woman at turns forthright and self-confident, and at others completely besotted by love. She’s complex and not always likable, but always true to her convictions. It’s a career-making performance and one which potentially may generate some Oscar buzz. Schneider play Brown like a Scottish laird, witty and not without charm but fiercely possessive of his friend.
Keats himself wrote that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, and Bright Star certainly fits the bill. Is this the definitive biography of Keats? No, because this is more a chronicle of his relationship with Fanny, the details of which must be inferred mostly through letters later in life from Fanny to her sister – most of the letters Keats wrote her from the Isle of Wight and Italy (where he went at the end of his life in an attempt to beat the tuberculosis) were destroyed at the poet’s request. Still, I’ve always wondered what makes a romantic poet so gosh-darned romantic, and Bright Star gives us an answer worth considering. There is no overt sexuality – the two followed the morals of their day, limiting their affection to ardent hand-holding and a few chaste kisses – but nonetheless this is a sexy movie – sexy in the ways of the heart.
REASONS TO GO: Cornish’s amazing performance, as well as solid work from Whishaw and Schneider is buttressed by cinematography of extraordinary beauty. Stay for the closing credits to listen to Whishaw read the poet’s own words regarding his love affair, which are worth the price of admission alone.
REASONS TO STAY: The film moves at a glacial pace at times which may drive modern movie audiences to distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hyde House and Estate substituted for the actual Keats House in Hampstead Heath because the director deemed it “too small.”
HOME OR THEATER: A British costume romantic drama set at the turn of the 19th century? Sounds like home video to me.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Year One