Like a comet that flashes across the sky and is gone, John Keats lived only 25 years. Panned by critics during his lifetime, his poems survived to become iconic of the Romantic period. With its emphasis on mythology, the beauty of nature, and the primacy of pure emotion, Keats’ poetry evokes great truth and intense feelings. Yet often it accomplishes these large purposes by attending to the minute details of the life around us.
The essence of this poetic style is brought gorgeously to the screen by Jane Campion’s liBright Star,” a film about January-February 2010 the passionate relationship of John Keats (Ben Whishaw) with his neighbor, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Today’s movies ordinarily try to portray the wild abandon of love through the impatient ripping of clothes and the lusty merging of bodies. But Campion presents this love story by means of its small details – the urgent longing of locked eyes, the gentle entwining of fingers, the wafting of a breeze beneath a skirt, and in one surprisingly erotic scene, the pressing of a furtive finger against a wrist beneath an organza cuff. The characters’ romantic obsession transcends physicality; in fact, when Fanny says she will lido anything” for him, Keats turns her down, responding, “I have a conscience.”
Unable to earn a living through his poetry, Keats relies on the financial largesse of his patron and friend, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider). Charles is Engels to Keats’ Marx, praising him, pushing him, protecting him, and supporting him. Conflict arises between Fanny and Charles as they compete for Keats’ attention. Charles wants Keats to spend all his time writing; Fanny wants him to spend time teaching her about literature. Her love for Keats is intellectual as well as emotional, and she is happy just to be in the room with him while he works.
Fanny, too, is an artist, although her craft is the homely kind that often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. She is an accomplished fashion designer, her page a bolt of cloth and her pen a needle making neat little stitches across a seam. Campion reminds us that women’s arts were just as beautiful and creative as the more manly pursuits of letters, paint, and marble, though they were never given the same honor and recognition.
In this film, both the costumes and the cinematography are splendid works of art. Each scene is composed with careful attention to lighting, background, and color. Windows open wide to invite nature inside, blossoms float in the spring air, the camera lingers on the two lovers as they share quiet moments together. Yet one of the most stunning scenes is a somber view of the Spanish Steps in Rome, where Keats went to convalesce after contracting tuberculosis, and where he at last succumbed to that disease.
At one point a light from the sky beams down on Fanny’s bosom, a subtle reminder of Keats’s poem “Bright Star.” The speaker of that poem longs to be like the star shining “stedfast” upon his “fair love’s ripening breast.” The poem ends with his desire “to hear her tender-taken breath,! And so live ever – or else swoon to death.” Keats did swoon in death, but his poetry lives on, “a thing of beauty [that] is a joy forever.” The film is a fitting tribute to the poetry, and to the life that made it.