(This essay contains a few spoilers, but they’re not so bad if you already know Keats’s biography.)
A film about a Romantic poet’s romance could so easily be cringe-worthy. I surveyed the movie poster as I bought tickets. It flaunted Victorian script that glowed like a star, a couple about to kiss, and the tag line, “First Love Burns Brightest.” Was I about to experience media I would have to ‘fess up to liking, like Gilmore Girls, rather than a film I could proclaim as great cinema?
The emotional tale of a three-year courtship cut short by Keats’s death at 25 could have become sentimental goop. But I needn’t have feared. Jane Campion – whose films Sweetie and Angel at My Table are personal favorites, though it was The Piano that won three Oscars – made several deft moves in her writing and direction of Bright Star and created a solid film.
Her first smart move is that she grounds the chaste but impassioned love of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw) in the midst of reality. That’s not to say that she portrayed the Keats-Brawne romance as mundane, measured, and reasonable. Romantic poetry is characterized by its delight in powerful, overflowing feelings rather than Enlightenment rationalism, and Campion captures the sentimental heights Brawne and Keats soared. For instance, in one snippet of Keats’s Romantic words to Brawne, he tells her, “I had such a dream last night. I was floating above the trees, with my lips connected to that of a beautiful figure.”
Keats may have floated above the trees, but Campion binds him to the earth. As Dan Persons writes in Huffington Post, “The film, in short, is sweet, sad, and moving but with Campion’s astringent edge keeping the proceedings from lapsing into sentimentality. And that makes all the difference.”
But how exactly does one do this?
Campion maneuvers away from sentimentality by showing Keats’s interactions with the Brawne family, and Fanny’s relationship with her family. Indeed, the first expressions of love in this film are not between Keats and Fanny Brawne at all. Instead, we see Fanny’s love for her very young sister, Toots, and Toots’s love for Fanny.
Toots demonstrates her love and trust when she and her brother Samuel walk into the bookstore to buy Endymion for Fanny. “My sister has met the author,” Toots tells the bookseller, “and she wants to read it for herself to know if he’s an idiot or not.” The fact that Fanny has entrusted them with this mission and that Toots feels like she can repeat anything Fanny says shows their close relationship.
The family’s interactions with each other are believable, with small bickerings, affectionate nicknames, “I love yous,” and resigned sighs. Keats becomes part of this family. Right after he declares his love for Fanny and they join the picnicking family, the couple play a game of “freezing” every time Toots turns around to look at them.
These touches make the film feel like you are watching the workings of the most fun and dynamic family you know, and this makes the film so human it’s impossible to cringe. (Okay, maybe it’s possible when characters read poetry aloud to each other. If you can’t suspend disbelief to watch a musical and pretend that people do burst into song mid-sentence, you’ll have a hard time imagining that people do quote poetry to each other from memory.)
The second smart move is that Bright Star seems aware of how silly Romanticism could appear to 2009’s viewers. The trailer describes Brawne as a realist, but once she and Keats are an item and he teaches her poetry, Brawne lazes about in ecstasy, cries, threatens to kill herself when she doesn’t hear from Keats, and in short, acts like a high school kid in love. As the three years progress, she demonstrates bravery, gravitas, and spunk along with her absorbing love for Keats, but at many points, she’s obsessed, and this creates humor and lets the audience observe Romanticism.
For example, after Keats wishes that the two of them were butterflies and could fill three days with pure delight, Fanny, Toots, and Samuel take the Romantic idea to the next level and start a butterfly farm in Fanny’s bedroom. Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox) walks into the “farm” bewildered, wanting to open windows, brushing the clinging butterflies off her dress, and sighing in disgust.
Campion crafts the juxtaposition well. On one hand, it’s ridiculous: keeping dozens of butterflies in a bedroom, shutting all the windows to create the warm environment the insects love, and not caring a hoot if they fly in your face. On the other hand, it’s cause for awe. The camera rests on jars of multi-colored butterflies, watches a blue-winged one flutter on a sliced orange, and looks at Toots caught up in the sight of them. Campion’s lens gazes wryly at the aspects of Romanticism that seem over-the-top to us today, but nevertheless appreciates the same beauty these poets held dear.
In Campion’s hands, Keats and Brawne’s relationship is a way to examine what makes all types of love meaningful, even love for the world itself. In Campion’s hands, it’s a film to proclaim as great cinema.