Keats' Poetry Comes Alive in Beautiful Story of Love and Death
John Keats has always been my favorite of the English romantic poets. Not only did his work embody the romantic ideal: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever: Its loveliness increases; It will never pass into nothingness," Keats' tragically short life underscored his passion and foreboding of death.
"Bright Star" begins in 1818, when Keats was 23.
When I was studying Keats' writing in college, I never knew of Fanny Brawne, an 18-year-old girl he fell in love with as simultaneously his creative output was reaching its peak and his health was slipping into terminal decline.
"Bright Star" is the title of a poem Keats wrote for Fanny: "Bright Star, would I were as steadfast as thou art..."
Writer-director Jane Campion has beautifully captured the bittersweet affair between Keats and Fanny, and handsome Ben Whishaw and perky Abbie Cornish embody the beauty of youth and the tragedy of economic failure, sickness and death.
Lest you think this is a downer, let me reassure you that Campion does not dwell on the indignities of Keats' tuberculosis, and she creates characters of comic relief in Fanny's younger Samuel (Thomas Sangster) and red-headed sister "Toots" (Edie Martin).
Playing both comic and villain is Keats' protective best friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider); a misogynist brute who sees Fanny as a threat both to Keats' work and his health.
The story is told from Fanny's point of view and its is largely derived from the letters between Keats and her.
The tale begins with the foreshadowing illness and death of Keats' younger brother Tom (Olly Alexander). Fanny is a neighbor who is proud of her fashion sense and prowess, yet knows not a thing about poetry. She is also a first-class flirt who piques Keats' interest, and he in turn gently introduces her to his literary world of truth, beauty and the senses.
As their love grows and deepens, Keats' financial situation becomes more precarious. His books simply are not selling, and no one has yet discovered his true genius.
It is implied that Keats' depression over his lack of success weakens his physical will as well. Though he and Fanny become engaged, Keats feels he cannot marry until he can support her.
Yes, it is all heading for a sad, foregone end, but "Bright Star" is suffused with beauty, both visually and from Keats' beautiful poems and his equally lovely letters to Fanny.
"If I should die, said I to myself, "I have left no immortal work behind me- nothing to make my friends proud of my memory- but I have learned the principal of beauty in all things, and if I had had the time I would have made myself remembered."
Jane Campion illustrates just how wrong John Keats' self-assessment was.