“Bright Star” (2009) is a film that yearns to be watched, ingested, and absorbed.
It is based on the last three years of life of John Keats, one of the great Romantics poets, who passed after a mere quarter century on this earth and left behind a wealth of sensual imagery in words that would be celebrated eternally worldwide. Like most greats, Keats’ talents were not recognized by critics during his lifetime. He struggled through a mostly destitute existence, plagued with poor health till the end. His bodily suffering though, seems to fuel his artistic enlightenment, as some of his most brilliant works are those of most melancholy. Even his fervent champion, Perchy Bysshe Shelley, another great Romantic poet, noted that Keats may be “simply too fine-tuned to endure the buffetings of the world.” Keats was the quintessential tortured artist.
One of Keats’ last poems is Bright Star, believed to be written in the last week of February 1819 immediately following his engagement to Fanny Brawne, a young English girl who served as the object of his affection. The film of the same name, directed by Jane Campion, focuses on the love story between Brawne and Keats, and through it invokes the world of Keats and the languishing thoughts of a bright, bright star that burned out all too quickly.
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.
To the star Keats addressed, and out poured a sonnet beseeching with the desire to be pressed against his sleeping love. He (Ben Whishaw) and Brawne (Abbie Cornish) fell into each other at first sight, and strained to steadfast their affections against the shackles of social propriety and financial reality. He was a poor poet with no income for marriage. She was a widow’s daughter whose youth and beauty served as her only chips in the game of life. Through wordless exchanges and meaningful looks, they managed to stay as close as possible without actually being together, living in one house, beds seperated only by a wall. He knocks against the wall, a lover’s call, and she comes to the other side, and knocks in return. Their heads pressed to the cool white panels, their hearts warm.
When finally the revelation came, it was not through a mutual build-up but rather a fuse of jest led by Keats’ friend, Brown, who is alarmingly protective of Keats and all his thoughts. Brown disapproves of Brawne, threatened by her wit and presence, and feels that she serves as a distraction to he and Keats’ work (and perhaps more). He warns Keats that Brawne is only playing a game, and Keats responds in unusual agitation that “there is a holiness to the heart’s affection and you know nothing of that!”
They kiss, and a spell is born. It is the liquor of young love’s infatuation, and they are drunk without abandon. The hilly countryside, the soft meadows, the melancholy forests…all is background to the burning fire of their mutual affections for each other. There is one scene where they walk behind the younger Brawne sister, attempting half-heartedly to conceal their passions when she turns around, but really hardly concealing anything at all. It will soften the hardest scowl into a smile.
But, times were different then, and Keats and Brawne remain unmarried and unengaged. Their passions kept at bay by their social circumstances most cruelly, and kisses could only be stolen in between interruptions and watchful eyes. It has to be said what a delight Fanny Brawne proves to be though. She is a bright young lady, sharp with her words, quick with her needles and fearless of change. She sewed the latest patterns and is unapologetic in the expression of her feelings, regardless of how strong they are. Portrayed in a convincing performance by Abbie Cornish, Brawne was a girl who refused to be tied down by the impending Victorian propriety, and perhaps that is why Keats loved her.
There is one scene where Brawne sits in a room of butterflies and confesses to her mother, cheeks rosy with summer heat, adorned by fluttering wings of fancy and clutching Keats’ letters:
“When I don’t hear from him it’s as if I have died…as if the air has been sucked out of my lungs and I’m left desolate. But when I receive a letter, I know my world is real…it’s the one I care for.”
The mother sighs in silent exasperation and walks to the door, only to be stopped by more of the fragile wings of fancy. “Watch the butterflies,” cooed Brawne. “Well..move it,” the mother uttered in frustration. She closes the door and Brawne flings herself back on the bed, and the butterflies flutter, and you can almost see her heart rejoice with their flight. Oh the joy of the heart’s affection…boundaries of time and space prove only imaginary under its spell.
Keats, on the other hand, is an old soul trapped helplessly in a young, frail body. He is melancholy by nature and from that springs poetry. His words drip with each sigh and utterance, and when inquested by Brawne about the art of his craft, he so fittingly uttered:
“It ought to come like leaves to a tree, or it better not come at all.”
There is a light to Brawne and a cloud in Keats, and like the way nature intended, where a darkness cracks, the light will shine through.
This is a love story for the ages, and Jane Campion presents it gently, with a lush score, wistful cinematography, and a longing that aches to be breathed. You can feel the tenderness in its delivery, which is slow and rapt with anticipation. It is no “Romeo and Juliet.” Campion knows that this is a story as much about young love as it is about the life of Keats, the person of Brawne, how they intertwine and inspire each other, and the romance of the poetry it births. Poetry is a lost art. It is not meant to be in haste. No one utters sonnets anymore in courtship. Hell, no one courts any more. But here, Campion gently winds the verses with the images, and it is enthralling to be reminded:
“My dearest lady, I am now at a very pleasant cottage window, looking onto a beautifully hilly country, with a view of the sea. The morning is very fine. I did not know how lasted my spirit may be, what pleasure I may have of living here if the remembrance of you did not weight so upon me. Ask yourself my love if you are not very cruel to have so entrammeled me, so destroyed my freedom. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form. I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies, and live but three summer days, three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain. When you confess this in a letter, must write immediately, and do all you can to console me in it. Make it rich as a draught of poppers to intoxicate me with it. Write the softest words, and kiss them…that I may at least touch my lips to where yours have been.
– John Keats to Fanny Brawne
A brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair… flights of fancy they are, come as naturally as leaves to a tree. Useless and impractical as they may be, take the time to ingest them, inhale the intoxicating aroma, feel the warmth spreading through your veins, and you will believe as I do… that it is better that they come, rather than nothing at all.