'Bright Star', the biography of romantic poet John Keats' final years and love affair with Fanny Brawne, is first and foremost a romantic movie. No surprise there, then. What is surprising, though, is how well Jane Campion's thoughtful film manages to marry what romantic poetry was 150 years ago with what romantic cinema is today.
Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of 25, and although he was not universally acclaimed at the time of his death, he is now regarded as one of the key figures of the Romantic Movement, with his 'odes' among his greatest achievements. His one great romance was with Fanny Brawne, herself a popular seamstress in her own right. That's the synopsis should it appear on the Leaving Cert, anyway.
Brawne (Cornish), Keats' 'Bright Star', is indeed the fixed point on which this film revolves. When she meets Keats (Whishaw) he is poor and in even poorer health, with both states getting progressively worse throughout the film. Keats is under the patronage of Mr Brown (Schneider), who in turn is fiercely protective of him. He dismisses Fanny out of hand, and does his best to keep her away from Keats.
Fanny, however, is no shrinking violet, and at times it almost seems like her ability as a seamstress and clothes maker is juxtaposed with Keats' struggle as a poet. Fanny can support herself through her work, and indeed has something tangible to show at the end, a point she makes both to Keats and Brown. When Keats' brother dies, also from consumption, it is Brawne who stays up all night to sew a pillowcase that Keats' younger brother will lay his head on for the final time.
At the beginning their affair is painstakingly slow. Custom being that no proper lady would leave herself alone with a single man, her younger brother Samuel (Sangster) is brought along. Love perseveres, however, and when providence decrees Mr Brown save money, himself and Keats move in and share half a house with the Brawnes. The romance so begins in earnest.
It's an intense romance, and highlights all the sufferings of love. Their despair and loneliness when they are not together drips off the pages of every love-letter they write, while poverty and ill-health seem to always stalk the relationship, as both Keats' lowly position in society and increasingly bad chest doom the relationship to end prematurely. The romance serves to make no one happy but themselves, with Mr Brown and Fanny's mother (Fox) both trying in vain to put a halt to it.
Campion's drama shines as a wonderful portrayal of the world of 1820s England, and all the social nuances and restrictions that accompanied it. It's no accident that Keats' love affair with Brawne is dismissed before it has begun as he does not have the means to support her, but when Brown manages to impregnate the lowly Irish maid, barely an eyelid is batted.
Keats' poetry is used sparingly throughout, and is never intrusive or repetitive, only serving to highlight the beauty in his own words, and accentuate the bond between the lovers. Cornish's recitation of 'Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art' towards the end of the film is indeed probably the best advertisement the poet will ever get.
Romantic poetry does not easily compare with what romance is today; they were in fact two very different things. Romantic poetry had its grounds in the great questions of the human condition, and focussed on feelings of intense happiness and sadness. Hollywood's rendering of romance has been wholly different, with emphasis on instant love and attraction.
As mentioned, where this film truly succeeds is in bringing both of these 'romantic' genres together. Through thoughtful film-making, a considered plot and great performances from Whishaw and Cornish, Campion pulls this off, with Keats and Brawne's love affair remaining virtuous until the very end. English teachers may well serve up this film to Leaving Cert students in years to come as a way of getting them interested in a heavy, sombre subject. And it's no harm; sure they might even learn something new!