For director Jane Campion, the love affair at the heart of her ravishing movie Bright Star is “as powerful as Romeo and Juliet.” That’s quite a claim to make, but watching her account of the passionate but chaste, tragically short romance between romantic poet John Keats and his young neighbour Fanny Brawne, I didn’t find the comparison at all overblown. And, as Campion points out, John and Fanny have something over R&J: their story is true. “And we have the love letters!”
Yet the relationship that inspired some of Keats’s most beautiful poetry began somewhat inauspiciously, as we learn from Campion’s film (its screenplay inspired, she admits, by former poet laureate Andrew Motion’s biography).
When the 23-year-old Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) first meets the 18-year-old Fanny (Abbie Cornish), he thinks she’s a fashion-obsessed minx, while she finds his poems a strain. Where Keats is diffident of his gifts, she is inordinately proud of her skill with a needle. “This is the first frock in all of Hampstead or Woolwich to have a triple-pleated mushroom collar,” she boasts when they meet at a party. Later she sends her younger brother and sister to buy a copy of his poem Endymion, “to see if he’s an idiot or not.”
Fortunately, his poetry doesn’t smack of imbecility. The pair’s relationship deepens after Fanny moves with her family in the spring of 1819 into the other half of the house near Hampstead Heath (now known as Keats House) that Keats shares with his friend, fellow poet Charles Brown (played in a surprising but not unsuccessful piece of casting by American actor Paul Schneider). Over the coming months, they slowly discover each other’s true worth and fall in love.
Of course, their love is as doomed as Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. Keats is too poor to marry and in all too brief a time he is displaying the signs of the tuberculosis that will lead to his death at the age of 25 in 1821.
It’s a desperately sad tale, but Campion doesn’t over-egg it. Keats may be the exemplary romantic poet, but her film steers clear of drippy swooning or histrionic emoting. Instead, her approach is marked by quiet restraint, an understatement that makes Keats and Fanny’s fate all the more moving.
Throughout the film, tiny details prove surprisingly touching, as when the poet’s younger brother dies and Fanny presents Keats with an exquisitely embroidered pillowslip on which to lay his head. The gesture is affecting enough in itself, but it’s made all the more so when Fanny’s young sister Toots (Edie Martin) blurts out that she has been up all night sewing it.
Campion pays great attention to stitching (indeed, the film opens with the image of a needle piercing a piece of linen), but her film avoids any taint of costume drama frippery. Yes, Fanny starts off as a Regency-era fashionista, but Cornish and Whishaw’s deeply felt performances give us a real sense of the flesh and blood and beating hearts beneath the frock coats and bonnets.
On general release from 6th November.