‘I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days.Three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.’
This is the first time I’ve watched a film about a writer and absolutely fallen in love. Bright Star follows the last three years of John Keat’s short life and his doomed love affair with Fanny Brawne. The success of this film lies in the fact that it is not a biographical film, but is an ode to Keats’ tragic life and love, told from the perspective of his beloved Fanny.
Fanny is just eighteen when she meets Keats; she’s outspoken, witty and a gifted seamstress who takes pride in her work as if were an art form itself. Despite possessing little interest or understanding of poetry, Fanny is intrigued by Keats and asks him to teach her about poetry. When she encounters Keats nursing his dying brother Tom, she is moved by Keats’ suffering and stays up all night embroidering a pillow for Tom on the day of his death. Keats is touched not only by this gesture, but also of Fanny’s confidence in his poetry, despite the fact that she knows little of the art.
Essentially, the story is a love triangle between Keats, Fanny and and Keats’ friend and patron Charles Brown, who is as in love with Keats as Fanny herself. A misogynist and exploiter of women, Brown believes Fanny to be nothing but a flirt and a distraction, warning Keats against her womanly wiles. Although Keats doesn’t share Brown’s views on love and women – “There is a holiness to the heart’s affections that you know nothing of”, he tells Brown – yet Keats finds that in his love for Fanny, he is caught between a growing attachment to his beloved muse and a need for freedom from the very thing that ties him down.
Eventually, it isn’t Brown’s interference that breaks their bond, not the disappointment of Fanny’s mother of a penniless son-in-law, nor even Keats’ own desire for freedom – when Keats falls ill with tuberculosis, both Keats and Fanny know that their love is doomed.
The film actually feels strangely longer than it is, but it never drags; it doesn’t have that fast-paced feel of other period dramas. Likewise, there is no clanging, dramatic music to build tension – the gentle, haunting music allows the audience to indulge in the soft sounds of nature, the singing of the birds, the lyricism of each spoken word and even the depth of the silences. The cinematography and setting only add to the beauty of this film.
The beginning of the film was, admittedly, not perfect as the actors took a while to settle into their characters. But as the film went on, each of the actors really grew into their roles. Abbie Cornish played the role of Fanny beautifully as she opens and closes the story – she is strong, passionate and determined. There is one cathartic scene at close of the film that left me as unable to breathe as Fanny herself. I was a little unsure about Ben Wishaw playing Keats at first, but he slowly grew on me as be became something of what we know of Keats: awkward, fragile, vulnerable, and yet so intense, impassioned and proud.
Jane Campion worked on the film using only Keat’s poetry and Andrew Motion’s biography of the poet. But it’s not a film about what poetry was to Keats, but what it meant to Fanny and how she learnt to love both Keats and his words. I am impressed that a film that with so much passion could also be so chaste and wholesome, and that a relationship could be so satisfyingly consummated not through love-making but letters and the utterances of poetry.
The poignant intensity of this film is unbearable. It’s lyrical without being sentimental or self-conscious; it’s a film to be achingly savoured and loved. You will even want to watch through to the end of the credits as Wishaw makes a sublime recitation of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
Bright Star is a beautiful tribute to one of the great English poets and his tragic life. You must watch it if you haven’t already.
Bright star, would I were stedfast 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,
Pillowed 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 in death.
– John Keats