There’s a joke in the one-act farce A Message From Cougar by Jean Maljean, when one of the characters hears his poetry compared to Keats. “Keats?” he says, “What are they?” Comes the answer: “What are Keats? Why, they are to poetry what Brahms are to music!” Like many jokes, this one has a kernel of truth: John Keats, who died in 1821, was one of the key figures in Romantic poetry just as Brahms, born in 1833, was in Romantic music. The difference is that Brahms was recognized and celebrated in his own lifetime, while Keats died at 25 believing his name and work would be utterly forgotten.
The last years of Keats’ pitifully short life—and his passionate love for young Fanny Brawne—are the subject of Jane Campion’s Bright Star. Unlike 2007’s Becoming Jane, which inflated a trivial flirtation in Jane Austen’s life into a consuming star-crossed romance not unlike one of Austen’s own novels, Campion is on solid ground here, and she treads it respectfully. As recognition of Keats’ genius grew after his death, so did the mystery of the unnamed beloved referred to in so many of his letters. Not until seven years after Fanny’s death in 1865 did her identity become generally known, with the publication of the poet’s ardent love letters. Those letters, along with the known facts of Keats’ life, form the spine of Campion’s movie.
I confess to a frisson of dread when I saw Jane Campion’s name attached to this project, for I’m not one of her admirers. She rose to fame in the 1990s, when her peculiar brand of graceless vulgarity was able to pass for honesty. But I found The Piano, her acknowledged (or supposed) masterpiece, to be arch, turgid and silly; The Portrait of a Lady (1996, from Henry James’ novel) dreadful; and her last feature, In the Cut, unwatchable after five minutes. Could this woman do justice to a chaste Regency love affair between a flirtatious girl and a doomed, sensitive genius?
But let’s give credit where it’s due. Campion, who once dragged Henry James (and Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich and John Gielgud) down to her level, rises to the occasion here with a perceptive delicacy I would never have expected. Her script blends excerpts from Keats’ letters with invented scenes and conversations among Keats, Fanny, her mother Frances (Kerry Fox) and Keats’ friend and fellow poet Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), and the result is seamless. These people speak with a cautious circumspection, often in words and cadences that are as strange and foreign to modern ears as Latin or Greek, and yet we fully comprehend the emotions behind them.
It’s an oblique illustration of historian Barbara Tuchman’s explanation of why we study history: When we recognize facets of times and people so completely different from us, it tells us about things that are unchanging in human beings. It’s a credit to Campion’s writing that we recognize these characters, even as they remain rooted in 19th-century England.
It’s a credit, too, to Campion’s handling of her cast. As Fanny, Abbie Cornish is less superficial, perhaps, than Fanny was in real life (Charles Brown wasn’t the only one of Keats’ circle who considered her a frivolous lightweight), yet she plants the idea that Fanny herself was less superficial than Brown or the others thought. She doesn’t fully understand Keats’ Endymion, but the opening line (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” Keats’ most famous) touches her, and she wants to know better the man who wrote it. She doesn’t love Keats because of his poetry, she wants to know more of poetry because she loves Keats the man.
Ben Whishaw’s performance as John Keats also rings true. Whishaw, whose willowy petulance seemed so off-putting in 2007’s Brideshead Revisited, fills the dimensions of his character more comfortably here. His Keats is tender and hesitant, almost afraid of his own passion, even as he’s driven to embrace it as the wellspring of his genius. Whishaw and Cornish’s moments together are as serene and loving as their forced separations are longing and tortured.
No one can ever know what really goes on between two lovers, and in the end, so it must be with John Keats and Fanny Brawne. But Jane Campion, Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw give us a tantalizing glimpse of what it must have been. We see, and believe, and we feel with (and for) them.