First, a short digression. When I was in labor, my husband read to me and what would do for such a moment? Only the most distractingly beautiful words set down in English of course: “The Eve of St. Agnes” by John Keats. In fact I very nearly named my daughter Madeline (though didn’t).
Today’s selection is Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009), which features Ben Whishaw as Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne, the woman he loved. If you know anything about Keats, it is probably his premature death at age 24, so I think it spoils nothing to say that the film isn’t a romance in the happily ever after sense, but it is deeply romantic and astonishingly lovely.
The film opens in 1818. Keats has left medicine to pursue poetry and it’s going, in a word, badly. The critical response is mixed (ever heard of the Cockney School?) and he’s watched family members die from consumption and senses the disease stalking him. Then he meets Fanny Brawne. They fall in love and enter into a secret engagement lasting until his death in 1821.
Early biographies of Keats often point out that Brawne wasn’t beautiful and harp on their correspondence, arguing that she isn’t brilliant and accusing her of being inconstant. Campion is engaged in a feminist reclamation, arguing that Keats was the jealous, insecure one and that Brawne loved him deeply.
While this is important to know, you could go into the film thinking it entirely fictional and still come away with the same emotional impact. The score, the costumes, the performances, the muted, autumnal tones of the cinematography: every detail contributes to a powerful movie that’s at once elegiac and ravishing.
I’m not sure why it didn’t get more awards consideration, except that it was released in the same year as The Young Victoria, and evidently we can only handle one romance at a time. For me, however, it’ll be Bright Star tonight.