On DVD: 2009 Favorite Bright Star

Jane Campion’s Bright Star, one of my favorite films of 2009, is now on DVD.

“Shall I give you Miss Brawne?” wrote the Romantic poet John Keats to his brother George in a letter dated Christmas Day, 1818. In the following lines, Keats offered his impression of the teenaged girl next door, subjecting every feature of her appearance and behavior to brutal inspection: Pleasant horse face (“a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort—she wants sentiment in every feature”); mouth “bad and good”; “manages to make her hair look well”; arms “good” but hands “baddish”; feet “tolerable.” Only her shape and movements were singled out for unmixed praise (“very graceful”).

“She is not seventeen,” he went on, “but she is ignorant—monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions—calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx—this is I think not from any innate vice, but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly—I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.”

Curiously, Miss Frances Brawne, or Fanny as she was called, expressed a rather different view of that Christmas Day, calling it “the happiest day I had ever then spent.” Clearly, Fanny knew something that Keats didn’t yet. Less than a year later, Keats’s perspective had changed markedly, as he expressed in “Lines to Fanny”:

What can I do to drive away
Remembrance from my eyes? for they have seen,
Aye, an hour ago, my brilliant Queen!
Touch has a memory. O say, love, say,
What can I do to kill it and be free
In my old liberty?
When every fair one that I saw was fair
Enough to catch me in but half a snare,
Not keep me there…

Luminous, exquisitely acted and not without a sense of humor, Jane Campion’s Bright Star contemplates how this graceful, stylish, ignorant, sharp-tongued girl ensnared, and was ensnared by, a struggling young Romantic poet with no income and no critical acclaim.

Fanny Brawne was not enamored of poetry (though she was “versed in languages and literature,” according to one biographer). A talented seamstress, Fanny was a social butterfly who adored witty banter, dancing and flirting, none of which Keats cared for.

They might as well have spoken different languages. Yet they seem to take turns at least suffering the other’s language. In an early scene in which Keats (Ben Wishaw, sensitive and slight) suspects Fanny (sublime Abbie Cornish) of spying on his solitude in order to report to others, he demands, “How will you describe me? My character?” When Fanny, not entirely convincingly, disclaims any interest in his character, Keats supposes she will be readier to comment on his jacket and pantaloons—which she is. The next time they meet, Fanny is ready to discuss Keats’s Endymion, which begins “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”

On Fanny’s side, this back-and-forth may be flirting, but what is it on Keats’s side? The whole question enrages Keats’s friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider in a bravura performance), who owns the apartments adjacent to the Browns where Keats is staying. A bellicose Scot whose soft voice belies his antisocial, truculent disposition, Brown is an aspiring poet, but humbly recognizes Keats’s greater gift, and acts as his secretary and assistant rather than his landlord.

In Brown’s view, Fanny “makes a religion of flirting.” But Brown is a true worshiper at the church of Keats, and will not suffer a dilettante like Fanny, sacrilegious in her superficiality. Brown is willing to flirt with Fanny himself, in his boorish, passive-aggressive way. For Keats, though, Brown sees in Fanny a distraction from his holy work, which must permit no such diversions.

Fanny is a dilettante, initially at least, when it comes to poetry, and puts on airs that Brown easily sees through. But is she a dilettante when it comes to Keats himself? Does she remain so? She asks Keats for poetry lessons. At their first lesson, she explains that she has trouble “working out” a poem.

“A poem needs understanding through the senses,” Keats replies in a memorable excursus. “The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore—it’s to be in the lake; to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”

Like many fancies of poets, this answer is both true and false (or “bad and good,” as Keats wrote of Fanny’s mouth). At least, it is an answer that could only be uttered by one for whom both swimming and poetry had become second nature. Keats has forgotten the possibility of floundering to the bottom of the lake, of being swept away by the poet’s torrent of words. One must first learn to keep afloat; only then can one luxuriate in the sensation of water and words. Unfortunately, the best swimmers are not always the best swimming teachers.

Another friend of Keats, the poet and lawyer John Reynolds (Samuel Roukin), offers a critical perspective on Endymion that shows he knows both how to swim and how to explain it to others, which is exactly what a critic should be. “There are rhymes but not on the beat,” he observes; “they are quiet but binding, and the repetitions set you up to fly … There are immaturities but also immensities, and that is what [the hostile critics] didn’t say.” This is how you paddle and kick; learn to do it without thinking, and poetry (when it is good) becomes an experience beyond thought, soothing and emboldening the soul to accept mystery. Etymologically, “poem” means “a thing made”; it is the same for good stitchwork, and good cinema.

Campion provides an unobtrusive seasonal framework for the story, with a dull autumn followed by a tender spring of flowering love, a summer at turns oppressive and lovely, fading imperceptibly into autumn (in one scene Fanny’s baby sister Toots (a gravely beguiling Edie Martin) gravely carries away an ungracious fallen leaf, murmuring, “There is no autumn here”). Frozen winter is coming.

John Keats died at 25 of tuberculosis, the same ailment that claimed his brother Thomas. In a last effort to save him, his friends put together the money to send him to Rome for the climate.

In an exquisite scene toward the end, Keats and Fanny say their goodbyes. Keats believes the trip is pointless, but can’t deny his friends who have paid his passage. Sobbing, Fanny exclaims, “Shall we awake and find all this is a dream? Is there another life? There must be—we cannot be created for this kind of suffering.” To help assuage the pain, Keats turns to imagination, and he and Fanny speak of the life they will have together when he returns in the spring.

Throughout the film, their romance has been intoxicatingly chaste, limited to a few kisses and embraces. Earlier, Brown crassly suggested that Keats bed Fanny, pointing out, “She’d do anything.” Brown himself has dallied with a housemaid, fathering a child out of wedlock. “With what ease you help yourself,” Keats noted disparagingly at the time. “With what stumblings a new soul is begun.”

Now, at the end, Fanny echoes Brown’s words (“You know I’d do anything”), indicating her willingness. But Keats is not. “I have a conscience,” he murmurs, without further comment.

It’s the second time he’s used that word (the first was in a fit of illness, suspecting Fanny’s fidelity). There are rhymes but not on the beat; they are quiet but binding, and the repetitions set you up to fly.

Content advisory: A curse word and a few sexual references; an out-of-wedlock pregnancy; bloody linens (in connection with tuberculosis). Teens and up.