Depth of the Keats spell in 'Bright Star'

elusive and enduring Still from the film ‘Bright Star’

(It is of Fanny he was writing when he wrote: “I have two luxuries to brood over…your Loveliness and the hour of my death.”) Campion takes a riskier approach by keeping everything terribly small and intimate. If the Merchant Ivory adaptation is the large canvas on the wall, Campion’s film is the tight snapshot on the desk. No stars, nothing lavish, and low key melodrama. It’s a beautiful, intelligent film with a rare, glowing intensity. And being a small film, it got buried, as usual, under big releases (like Eat Pray Love). 
    
Campion got the idea to make a movie out of this remarkable literary love story while reading Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats, the romantic poet who died at 25. A striking aspect of his last years was falling in love with a girl called Fanny Brawne. In the autumn of 1818, Keats was 23 and Fanny was 18. Often ill and away from her, Keats wrote her poems and letters. Keats was penniless and couldn’t afford to marry Fanny, who wasn’t rich herself. But against protests and odds, they found themselves wanting to be together right up to the tragic end. Jane Campion wrote a screenplay that told the story from Fanny’s point of view. “The Keats spell went very deep for me” she said after reading the biography.  

It’s not a story book love story at all. Neither of the characters is neurotic or eccentric or full of ticks. Nothing much happens. When it does, it’s usually Keats falling more sick and coughing blood, or Fanny being made to realise how difficult — materially — life will be for her if she does not marry well. And yet, how believable and radiant their love is, full of spark and wit and poetry. Fanny’s mother, brother and little sister love Keats even if he isn’t good for Fanny’s future. They delight in his company. The character of Keats and Fanny and the actors who play them, Ben Wishaw and Abbie Cornish, are very understated, quiet and natural but burning with steady intensity and tenderness.  

Campion has been fanatical about authenticity and period detail, and the movie comes alive as if a painting of an English scene you have been watching had sprung to life. Now, this is a new approach: to infuse so much impeccable background research and period attention and yet keep the movie a miniature. Jane Campion and her crew make you feel you are actually there in the picture, eavesdropping on Fanny and her family in the drawing room, and strolling along just a few paces away on the many walks Keats and Fanny take. I was smitten, as you will be, with newcomer Abbie Cornish playing Fanny.
She is real. She has disappeared into the character of Fanny and become her. Her devastation at the end on hearing Keats is dead is heartbreakingly true. Fanny turned recluse and wore black for a whole three years after, refusing to court or marry another. Abbie Cornish makes you believe this completely. When Keats first met her, he dismissed her in letters to his brother and sister in law:

“Shall I give you Miss Brawne?  She is about my height with a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort — she wants sentiment in every feature — she manages to make her hair look well — her nostrils are fine, though a little painful — her mouth is bad and good — her profile is better than her full-face which indeed is not full but pale and thin without showing any bone  — her shape is very graceful and so are her movements — her arms are good, her hands badish — her feet tolerable....  She is not seventeen — but she is ignorant   — monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx — this, I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly. I am, however, tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.”

Campion notes, “Keats had met the great love of his life but neither he nor she knew it.” Fanny was already famous in Hampstead for her sense of fashion and her sharp wit. Keats had met “his petite equal, lippy and combative. By the spring of 1819, Keats was totally in love with Fanny, and it was during this period that he completed, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to a Grecian Urn, The Eve of St Agnes, and Ode on Melancholy. His first book had been received poorly and had not sold.

His second book of verse, Endymion, is published and there’s a marvelous scene where Fanny’s little sister and brother set foot into a 19th century village bookshop and ask for a copy of Endymion, and the bookseller doesn’t know the title, looks for it among a heap of books and finally finds a copy.  The kids buy it for a few pence. They walk away holding in their hands a first edition of Endymion, a single copy of which now sells for more money than Keats ever made from all his published verse. When the children hand Fanny a copy, she quickly reads it, and frowns several times in her reading and critiques the effort to Keats honestly. She is also moved to tears by some of the verse. After this, they would be separated often because of Keats’ failing health and his lack of funds.

Campion notes: “The young man who died devastated, convinced he would be forgotten, has been repeatedly rediscovered. For many people, he is the first point of entry into poetry and his life story is a big part of that magical equation.”

Dying in Italy, Keats wrote: “I cannot exist without you, I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again …You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving..On awakening from my three day dream…I should like to cast the die for love or death. I have no patience with any thing else.”  Fanny’s letters to Keats, alas, was buried with Keats in his Italian grave, many of them unopened. It is only Keats’ letters to her that we have, and you yearn so strongly as Bright Star ends for Fanny’s letters, to hear of how she spoke and thought of her love for John Keats.    

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