It's 1818 in Hampstead Village on the outskirts of London. Poet Charles Brown lives in one half of a house, the Dilkes family who live in the other half. Through their association with the Dilkes, the fatherless Brawne family know Mr. Brown. The Brawne's eldest daughter, Fanny Brawne, and Mr. Brown don't like each other. She thinks he's arrogant and rude, and he feels that she is pretentious, knowing only how to sew (admittedly well as she makes all her own fashionable clothes), flirt and give opinions on subjects about which she knows nothing. Insecure struggling poet John Keats comes to live with his friend, Mr. Brown. Miss Brawne and Mr. Keats have a mutual attraction to each other, a relationship which however is slow to develop in part since Mr. Brown does whatever he can to keep the two apart. But other obstacles face the couple, including their eventual overwhelming passion for each other clouding their view of what the other does, Mr. Keats' struggling career which offers him ... Written by
Campion captures the sine curve of romantic experience
Keats's romance with Fanny Brawne and final days are brought to lovely life in Jane Campion's new film, Bright Star. He had TB, though it's never named. When he had become very ill, they sent him to Rome. How foolish! Its climate isn't healthy, though it might have seemed so compared to Hampstead. The house where Keats lived in Hampstead for two years and was in love with Fanny Brawne and wrote some of his has just been restored.
Campion's film may not be a deep investigation of poetical genius, but it's delicate and alive and infinitely touching. There's a delightful litte rosy-cheeked girl, and good use is made of cats. The handsome Regency house was then divided into two, one side occupied by Keats and his landlord and possessive companion Charles Brown, the other by a family called Brawne. He fell in love with Fanny Brawne, and she with him. She is creative in her own way, a brilliant seamstress and designer of clothing who was inventive with fabrics. She didn't know much about poetry but to go by the film, she crammed the classics to be able to talk to Keats and read all his poems and memorized many passages. They recite them back and forth to each other, which may be artificial, but you don't mind, because the poetry is their love, it bloomed through their love and expresses it. Until he began coughing blood and ceased to write because he was suddenly too ill, Keats wrote some of his best work in Hampstead, in love with Fanny Brwwne.
They express their love in long sweet kisses, and walking hand in hand. This too is artificial but a fitting symbolic expression of the ecstasy and swoons of romantic poetry.
Sometimes the final credits define the experience of a film and of its audience. You have to love a film over whose final credits the wispy, winsome Whishaw is heard softly reading the whole of the Ode to a Nightingale, right to the end, and you have to respect an audience in an American cineplex when many of its members sit still to hear Keats's masterpiece down to the final words, "Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/ Fled is that music: Do I wake or sleep?" Can you imagine having known a person with such extravagant gifts? Campion doesn't get too much in the way of our own imagining. She just lets it happen, lets the cats wander in and out, and thus captures the sine curve of romantic experience, its extremes of joy and despair that are so poignantly focused in the life of this penniless English boy who died at twenty-five, thinking himself a failure, and left behind some of the finest poetry in the language.
Abbie Cornish plays Fanny, Ben Wishaw John Keats, Paul Schneider plays Charles Brown. The little rosy-cheeked sister, Margaret "Toots" Brawne, is played by Edie Martin. Brown is the villain of the piece, because he jealously guards Keants from Fanny, whom he thinks is a silly girl who only sews and flirts. He's getting in the way of romantic love! And Schneider can't help but seem obtrusive here. Brown redeems himself later when, having gotten the sweet Irish servant girl Abigail (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) with child, he does the right thing and marries her.
Fanny's mother says she can't marry Keats, because he has no money, but he proposes, and she accepts, and when the liebestod begins, there's no way of denying his happiness or Fanny's, or the sadness and devotion that made her wear the gold engagement band for the rest of her life. Campion's film offers no profound insights into the poetic process. But how can it? Though Fanny asks Keats to give her "lessons" in poetry, its appreciation, like its creation, must be instinctive and cannot be explained, particularly not the ethereal romantic kind. Wishaw's delicate and enigmatic quality is a satisfying image to hang our fantasies on.
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