(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: In 1818, high-spirited young Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) finds herself increasingly intrigued by the handsome but aloof poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), who lives next door to her family friends the Dilkes. After reading a book of his poetry, she finds herself even more drawn to the taciturn Keats. Although he agrees to teach her about poetry, Keats cannot act on his reciprocated feelings for Fanny, since as a struggling poet he has no money to support a wife.
– From Production Notes
I don’t think of Bright Star as a story but as a series of moments. Altogether they build upon one another, creating a subjective fiction based on something real: a relationship cut short before it could flourish. It spans two years yet still seems so small, like a smudged, abbreviated poem you find written in the back of a book. It tells you enough but there is mystery in the details. Considering John Keats‘ poetical philosophy, I think he would have liked that.
Re-watching this has caused me to evaluate its placement among other films in this series I’d consider straight-up romances, like Jane Eyre and Moulin Rouge!, even though it isn’t the love stories that attracted me or have held my attention for so long. In this case I’d say it’s the way Jane Campion crafted the film, creating something I can’t find words for other than “delicate.” This is the only film I can think of that seems to be made of nothing but air and light, somehow existing without the need for other elements. There is also a sense that you’re watching something that is private and stolen, like reading the Griffin and Sabine trilogy or experiencing Jason Webley‘s multimedia piece, Margaret.
The project began with Campion wanting to learn more about the Romantic poets of the 19th century. While reading a biography on Keats she came across his letters to Brawne and found them as immediate as they were nearly two hundred years ago. “I’m just doing my version,” she explained, which is the plainest way to describe what she did. Bright Star captures moments that are as mundane as they are transcendent. Everything seems to be fleeting as we watch two people discover each other, becoming tied together by what they have in common as well as what keeps them apart.
Brawne met Keats when she was eighteen years old. He was twenty-three and had already left his former career of medicine to pursue poetry. Their meeting was one of circumstance, having mutual acquaintances and eventually becoming neighbors. What leads them to being interested in each other isn’t particularly special, but what affirms it is when Keats discovers Brawne genuinely cares about him, prompting him to reach out for her when no one is looking.
It’s scenes like this that make Bright Star. It plays out without warning or pretense and could appear as if hardly anything has happened, yet it’s clear how deeply it’s effecting the people involved. Campion isn’t attempting to make a historical drama or a by-the-numbers biopic here, but something more interior. Every scene is framed by something characters are experiencing (and will undoubtedly remember for the rest of their lives) with an inherent air of intimacy to it, as if it wasn’t meant to be seen at all.
Another example takes place later, when the Brawne and Keats discover they’re living in rooms with a shared wall. He knocks on his side and she replies. All he does is close his eyes, which is amplified by the way Whishaw plays the reaction. His eyelashes flutter then he holds still. After Brawne retreats he moves his bed next to the wall, a secret gesture of wanting to be close to her. Later on she does the same.
It is a first love for both, and of course it is rife with conflicts. Cornish portrays Fanny as strong-willed and bracingly honest for a woman of her time, completely unafraid to share her opinions or lose herself. Whishaw plays Keats as a man who is conflicted and unsure of his merits. He is bowed by his attraction to Fanny while feeling obligated to pursue his fledgling career and stay true to the friends who are helping him stay afloat.
There is also a counterpoint to both of their struggles, which forms an increasingly tense love triangle. Keats is living with his close friend and benefactor, Charles Armitage Brown, played by Paul Schneider. For a long time all I remembered was how Schneider stole the film. It’s one of those brilliant supporting performances that I never tire of watching. He is unable to contain himself; not only with his words (often barbed) but his intentions (mostly devious) while he tries to drive them away from each other. It isn’t an easy feat to make this character understandable- let alone funny- but Schneider manages to do it with aplomb.
Aside from his underhanded tactics, Brown proves to be more complex than he appears. Later scenes reveal his devotion to Keats. He wants to protect his talent, which would be hindered by marriage, but it only manifests as pettiness and irritation. Another of his telling moments is watching Fanny strolling alone from a window. Without words Schneider portrays enough to hint that he was in love with Fanny all along, but spoiled his chance before he could act on it.
In Bright Star love is portrayed as a something that has to be repressed. As a result it becomes intoxicating and volatile. Brawne falls into a depression when Keats leaves for a summer, putting a strain on her mother (played deftly by Kerry Cox) and taking out her frustrations on her little sister (Edie Martin). The only solace she finds is in his words, which reach her in the letters that still survive today.
At one point Keats writes, “I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days- three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” In response Fanny and her siblings begin to gather butterflies in her room, but it isn’t long before they are trapped and dying. Their life spans are fleeting, and so are the moments between Keats and Fanny, who are doomed to be separated.
Circumstances only worsen as they meet and part and meet again, culminating with their last night before Keats leaves for Italy to recover his health. Both of them know he won’t return but can’t say it out loud. “Shall we awake and find all this is a dream?” Fanny sobs. “There must be another life. We can’t be created for this kind of suffering.”
Upon revisiting this film what remains with me is how deeply Fanny felt everything, even though there are only a few scenes where she is able to portray it. From outward appearances she seems collected or opaque, leading others to underestimate her intentions or emotions. They are wrong. She is the “bright star” of Keats’ poetry, wounded but steadfast in the face of uncertainty, ridicule or concern. “You all wish I would give up, but I can’t,” she tells a family friend. “Even if I wanted to, I cannot.”
When she is told Keats has died Cornish turns in one of the best performances I’ve seen of someone reacting to a death. She can hardly breathe or contain her feelings any longer. She has been holding to them tightly, hoping to expend them with the man she loves, but it’s no longer possible. She crumples to the floor, half aware of what’s happening. It’s over, and it hurts. Keats has become a specter in her life. In turn she has become a shadow.
In reality Fanny went into mourning for six years after Keats’ death, wearing black and continuing to wear the ring he gave her. Her life continued to be shaken by tragedy when her brother and mother passed away within months of one another, and she didn’t consider marriage until she met a man named Louis Lindon and married at the age of thirty-three. In spite of this, she remained devoted to Keats and contributed to preserving his legacy, but hardly anyone was aware of her importance in his life until a decade after she died.
Aside from the film, when I think of their whirlwind romance I can’t help but wonder, “Would they have been happy anyway?” After reading about Mary Shelley’s devotion to Percy Shelley in Romantic Outlaws, it’s difficult to believe it. Regardless, whatever Keats and Brawne felt for each other remains true and unspoiled, even though they were robbed of a future together. Bright Star captures that with subtlety and patience, highlighted by its imagery, performances, a beautiful score and- as I mentioned before- moments. When it comes to the whole of our lives, sometimes that’s all we have.