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Bright Star

January 18, 2010

“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.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Lesley permalink
    January 18, 2010 5:10 PM

    This movie has been so sadly overlooked. It was such a beautiful film, with great performances by Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, and Paul Schneider.

  2. January 18, 2010 7:36 PM

    Beautifully written as always, Grace. Oh, I so wanted to like this film; I had such great hopes for it, since I love her other films. It is a gorgeous looking film, and all the actors are ace, especially Paul Schneider. But I must confess that too much of it just bored me; all the swooning and longing made it float off into the ether. Not that I’m against swooning and longing in a film (Wong Kar-wai does this better than anyone), but here it didn’t quite jell. I missed the dynamic bite of Portrait of a Lady, which there is some of in the scenes w/ Brawne and Brown. However, this is one I’d be willing to give a second chance; sometimes it takes more than one viewing to fully appreciate a film.

    Grace: I am a fan of Keats and of the Romantics period… so much that sometimes, I feel like I’m born in the wrong century. There wasn’t a chance that I wouldn’t enjoy this film. It’s not as melodramatic as it could be, but I feel that it’s fitting. Keep in mind that Wong Kar Wai (who I love) didn’t have to work in the literature works of a poet in the 19th century. Writers are hard to portray in cinema, and the way Campion worked it in here is a subtle art. Do give it another shot. You may be surprised.

    • January 18, 2010 9:28 PM

      I love the Romantic poets, too. I was a literature major in school, and in both high school and college I read plenty of it — Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Blake and the rest. Such a great period, which why I was so keen to see Bright Star. But you’ve convinced me — I’ll definitely give it another try.

      Grace: I did give it a solid effort :)

  3. January 18, 2010 7:44 PM

    I don’t remember if it’s at the Keats House or not, but I heard that Keats gave Brawne a ring, which she wore until the end of her life. At the time, Keats was already a very sick man, so the ring was more of a promise of what could have been and was, rather than what would be.

    Also, while it is now one house, the Keats House originally was two houses: Fanny Brawne lived next door to John Keats. The front door and hallway occupy the space that would have separated the houses from each other.

    Ten years ago (April), upon visiting the Keats House, I came up with a story idea: to write about the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. For that reason alone, I am hesitant to watch this movie, to see how much better Jane Campion treats this subject than I would have. But, as Keats is one of my favorite poets ( “The Eve of St Agnes” is one of my favorite poems), that is not enough reason for me to pass up seeing this film.

    Grace: Brawne married and had lots of children, as it was her right to. I wonder if she knew how deep a mark her love affair with a young English man in her late teens resulted in some of the most beautiful poetry ever existed?

    I have a feeling you will like this. Being a fan of Keats as you are, how can you not?

    • January 23, 2010 2:32 AM

      Oh, I’m definitely watching this film, but I must see The Hurt Locker first. And yes, being as huge a fan of Keats as I am, how can I not see this movie?

  4. January 19, 2010 2:13 AM

    I’ve been reading your blog since Mr. Ebert first tweeted about you, and I must say this was a wonderful post. Bright Star was my absolute favorite film last year, though the experience of seeing it in theatres worries me about watching it again at home. Perhaps I’ll lose the wonder of being totally immersed in the images and story. But your post reminded me of how breathtakingly beautiful it all is, regardless of screen size.

    I do believe the ‘shared wall’ scene made my heart beat faster than any moment in The Hurt Locker. It’s hard to believe that a PG-rated romance about first love could be the most thrilling and engrossing movie of the year. Luckily for us, it was.

    Grace: My heart beat just as fast for The Hurt Locker…but in a completely different way. The two films are incomparable, and both irreplaceable.

    Don’t be shy around here.

  5. January 19, 2010 2:34 PM

    Nice review and write-up!

  6. January 22, 2010 6:48 AM

    Hi Grace! I will wait for this film here in the Philippines and will start reading Keats. He writes so beautifully. I have read so much about this film. :-)

    Grace: Beautiful country you are in! Best mango shake ever.

  7. catmeng permalink
    January 23, 2010 2:09 AM

    Hi Grace,
    I too have been reading your blog because of Mr. Ebert, and I have to agree with everyone else here…this was a great review. You write so beautifully, I’m a little bit jealous :)

    looking forward to your future posts!

    Grace: Thanks! No need to be jealous…I suck at many many other things (promise), and am only half decent at this.

  8. KathyB permalink
    February 2, 2010 5:37 PM

    Bright Star was so beautiful I had to go see it twice within a few days, afraid it would be gone after that week’s run. I loved the peeks into how people lived in that time. Happy to see the costumes nominated for an Oscar. Fanny’s devotion to fashion, and her own needlecraft, gave another dimension to the whole look of the movie. For me it was just a visual feast.

    Visited the Keats/Shelley museum at the foot of the Spanish steps in Rome some ten years ago. So relieved that the movie let him go off to Italy to die but didn’t follow him. Heartbreaking already knowing the circumstances and his inevitable doom without invading his final privacy.

    Your review is lovingly done and appreciated.

  9. February 7, 2010 9:24 PM

    I recently watched it and was enthralled by beautiful images and passionate love barely hidden inside them. Who can forget all these blue flowers surrounding Fanny? Or the scene where lovers under same roof but separated by white panel wall? Not one of Campion’s best, but it is lively, wistful, and gorgeous indeed. I am almost illiterate about poetry(Korean or English), I could not help but listen to BenWhishaw’s reading of “Ode to a Nightingale” in the end. I think we lost much of sensibility as well as class in our time.

    In the movie, Keats said “I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days — three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” Screw you, Twilight and its sequels. I will urge my young female cousins to watch “Bright Star” instead.

  10. October 4, 2010 8:58 PM

    Watching it this weekend! I’ll probably be featuring Keats soon on my blog as one of my favorite authors, too.

    Also, it appears that you still have the link to my Blogger address on your sidebar. Feel free to change it to the more superior WordPress website that I am now using for my blogs. :-)

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