Early on in Jane Campion’s new film, Bright Star, Fanny Brawne reads, transfixed, the opening lines of John Keats’ epic poem, Endymion, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever; Its loveliness increases; it will never/ Pass into nothingness.” This proves to be the start of a powerful, uncontrollable love affair, and the start of a film filled with Keats’ poems.
It’s London in 1818 and a secret love affair begins between the 23 year old poet John Keats, and his 18 year old next door neighbour, Fanny Brawne. Notes are passed, fingers are touched, and eyelashes counted.
But no all-consuming love affair is complete without the jealous best friend; in this case the brash Scotsman and self-styled poet-in-arms, Charles Armitage Brown (played by Paul Schneider).
For much of the film Brawne and Brown quarrel over the territory of Keats. As producer, Caroline Hewitt, puts it, “Brown sees Fanny as a flibbertigibbet”. She’s getting in the way of the real work to be done, which is writing profound poetry. The fact that Keats’ most powerful poetry comes during these months is not lost on the audience, and increasingly not on Brown either.
In fact poetry is inextricably tied up in the love between Fanny and John Keats. “I started to think about the story of Fanny and Keats as a ballad, a sort of story poem,” Campion explains. The Australian director, best known for The Piano, goes on to explain how the inspiration for the film came from reading Andrew Motion’s biography, Keats: “I got to the part where he met Fanny and I fell in love with their story. I was drawn to the pain and beauty and innocence of their love affair.”
The former Poet Laureate was an advisor during filming, and perhaps that explains various moments of verisimilitude. I noticed that the letters in the film use Keats’ actual handwriting. Fanny and Keats also have lines we know they really said. Fanny’s lament before Keats leaves for Rome, “We cannot be created for this kind of suffering,” is all the more powerful for such knowledge.
The same can be said for lines recited from Keats’ poems. “I was determined to get as much of his poetry in as we could,” Campion says. “A lot of people feel alienated from poetry, because they don’t understand it. But Keats is a great explainer of poetry and I wanted to use that in the story. Poetry is a drug really, it goes into your head and it sticks.”
Its aim in that respect is admirable, and has the potential to introduce Keats to those who may be unfamiliar with the opulence of his verse. As Whishaw puts it, “I think he was very complicated and probably a genius.” And this does come through. But what really goes into your head and sticks is the all-consuming, powerful, touching, innocent love of Fanny Brawne and John Keats.