Bright Star: Campion's Film About the Life and Love of Keats

Year

2009
Bright Star: Campion's Film About the Life and Love of Keats

A portrait of love and loss, Jane Campion's film Bright Star chronicles the tragic love affair between John Keats and his neighbor, Fanny Brawne, throughout the years in which Keats wrote several of the most celebrated poems of the Romantic period. Told from Brawne's perspective on the romance, the film not only reveals the evolution of their young love, but traces Brawne's introduction and immersion into Keats's world of poetry, beginning with apathy and ending with passionate involvement.

Though at the time the lovers meet in 1818 Keats has already established himself in the literary world, his career does not afford him the financial means to marry. Knowing this, Brawne's interaction with Keats is limited, so she injects herself into his life by feigning an interest in poetry.

Ben Whishaw as John Keats in Jane Campion's Bright Star, 2009; Joseph Severn's miniature of Keats, 1819

One of the most intimate early scenes of the relationship takes place over an impromptu poetry lesson, though Keats is suspicious of Brawne. When she asks for an introduction concerning "the craft of poetry," Keats dismisses the notion: "Poetic craft is a carcass, a sham. If poetry doesn't come as naturally as leaves to a tree, then it better not come at all."

As the conversation continues, however, Brawne earns Keats's trust, and he offers a more useful explanation: "A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it's to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery."

 

Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne Jane Campion's Bright Star, 2009; Ambrotype of Fanny Brawne, circa 1850

From that point on, Brawne develops an obsession with poetry—mostly Keats's own poems—and occasionally recites favorite verses from memory. It is through Brawne that much of the poetry of the film reveals itself, either from her memory, or read to her by Keats.

Poems excerpted in the film include the book-length sequence Endymion, "When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be," "The Eve of St. Agnes, section XXIII, [Out went the taper as she hurried in]," "Ode to a Nightingale," "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and the title poem, "Bright Star," which Campion depicts as having been written with Brawne as Keats's muse, though the historical evidence is inconclusive.

As Andrew Motion notes in Keats: A Biography (which Campion credits as having inspired the film), there are two parallels between the poem and Brawne: the first is found in one of Keats's love letters to Brawne ("I will imagine you Venus tonight and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Heathen. Your's ever, fair Star."), and the second is the fact that in 1819 she transcribed the poem in a book by Dante which Keats had given her. There are, however, poems that were definitely written to Brawne ("The day is gone..." and "I cry your mercy..."), and Motion points out that their form resembles that of the title poem.

Another of Keats's works unmistakably written for Brawne is the poem "To Fanny," the last known poem written by Keats. In it, the poet addresses doubts and suspicions about Fanny—a turn at the end of Keats's life that Campion understandably leaves out of the film entirely.

"['To Fanny'] begins with a desperate challenge to the advice that [Keats] should avoid writing," explains Motion, "describing 'verse' as an illness which 'Physician Nature' must cure by bleeding."

Though Campion's film excludes any mention of Keat's suspicions, Motion explains how the handwritten manuscript of Keats's final poem offers "touching evidence" of the state the poet was in when he wrote it: "Initially large and wild, with several letters hastily unformed, Keats's handwriting eventually slackens and splays. He was obviously worn out. The fact that it was the last poem he wrote makes this all the more moving."