Reviews - Bright Star
Reviewed By John Stakes
Here Campion brought to the screen the three years’ unconsummated romance between one of Britain’s finest Romantic poets John Keats and next door neighbour seamstress Fanny Brawne which ended with his untimely death in Rome in 1821. Her source material was Andrew Motion’s biography on Keats. History records that at the time the two first met in 1818 Keats’ attitude toward women was difficult, being uncomfortable in their presence and even contemptuous of them. Ben Wishaw’s 23 years old Keats also presented as a somewhat wimpish and withdrawn individual, overly protected by his poetically inferior colleague Scotsman Charles Brown (played by the American actor Paul Schneider), not in the best of health, and almost penniless.
It was difficult to see what the attractive and much in demand 18 year old Fanny (Abbie Cornish) might see in this would-be poet. Her mother (Kerry Fox) was no less keen than Keats himself appeared, to discourage any liaison between the two. Keats seemed to rely on that good old standby distance to lend enchantment. Any expression of feeling by the young poet was confined to the lofty romanticism of his letters and the occasional holding of hands.
Campion attempted to present Fanny as a modern woman determined to be herself and not as society perceived her. But period drama convention prevailed so the Jane Austen style of plotting was ever present to ensure the couple were frequently separated as to which Keats himself did not seem averse and even appeared ignorant or uncaring about the effect on Fanny. Even when Keats found himself drawn closer to the determined Fanny he felt it was appropriate to tell her that their web should be disentangled lest it fettered his Romantic mind. Such was the complexity of his character that it is difficult to discern whether he truly understood women or was too troubled by his own shortcomings openly to attempt to commit.
Maybe for this reason Campion focused almost entirely on Fanny for the dramatic content of her film. She was allowed full rein to emote at every turn and verse end as it were, and how well Abbie Cornish delivered for her director. Her breakdown at the news of Keats’ death in Rome was memorable. Campion also gave the great poet’s minder Charles Brown (did Paul Schneider wear the same pair of trousers throughout?) some exquisite lines to try to keep Fanny at bay, and there was a delightful cameo from Edie Martin as Fanny’s much younger sister Toots.
Campion was well served by her production team. Cinematographer Greig Fraser captured some beautiful scenery as every aspect of Hampstead’s 19th century seasonal charms were revealed as well as its working class underbelly. The attention to period detail was equally impressive as was the costume design of Janet Patterson
Campion has been described as someone who is more interested in exploring the area where life becomes indivisible from art. And indeed there were times when the ravishing scenery and composition of characters within it were deployed to reflect Keats’ perception of the spirituality and purity of their relationship.
It is also claimed that Campion can pull rabbits out of hats. So it will be very interesting as the Oscar/BAFTA season approaches, to see if she triumphs with this unusual and highly individual take on the life of one of our foremost poets. There is no denying Campion’s film-making skills and self belief, and this film will have pleased her many admirers and be seen as a welcome return to form. It was hugely enjoyed by a large Keswick audience and the whole of the £220 proceeds were donated by the Club to the Cumbria Flood Recovery Fund.
For the record the relationship between Fanny and John Keats remained a secret until 1878 many years after Keats’ death, and Fanny went on to marry and have three children.
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