Jane Campion says she made a movie about John Keats because she “was terrified of poetry”. A tricky poem was like a spider in a high corner of her brain; making meaning hard to reach; staining her enjoyment. But Keats proved a good teacher. As he says in the movie: “A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.” Bright Star is about a love of verse.
An impoverished Keats is a lodger at the Brawne household in 1818. His poetry has not sold well. He shares a bachelor parlour with his friend Charles Brown and spends his days, like most writers, staring at a blank page the way a sniper watches an open window. Then one day his landlady’s daughter takes an interest in his poems. Her name is Fanny Brawne and she dresses like a rare orchid. She speaks to Keats with a directness he finds intriguing. She wants to understand his work. Since Keats lacks funds, she agrees to pay him to be her poetry tutor. She will become Keats’s muse, and the “Bright Star” of his most rapturous sonnet.
“Bright star, would I were as steadfast as thou art/ Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night…No – yet still steadfast, still unchangeable/ Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast…” In those lines – that mixture of headiness and eroticism – Jane Campion finds her movie. The love between John Keats and Fanny Brawne is chaste, unyielding and tragic. Like Keats’s poem, it conjures a feeling like taking your last breath; that special awareness that comes with sensing mortality. There is no sex in the movie, but the physical connection between the two leads is palpable. Their every kiss is like a resuscitation. Their every touch pierces skin.
Ben Whishaw plays Keats as a bookish man with a roaring heart. There’s an intensity about him, but nothing threatening. He’s a man who could look right through you if he were reading. But he’s also present – the way people are when they have experienced death at a young age. He isn’t sentimental, or mawkish. Rather, he’s someone who has a passion in life, and who is loved because of that passion. When Jane Campion films Whishaw sitting, musing, by a tree, another actor might look fey or ridiculous. Whishaw looks real, as if he really were receiving inspiration. Even his consumptive coughing fits avoid the ominous-cough cliché.
Abbie Cornish, faced with the more difficult task of embodying a muse, goes the practical route. Fanny Brawne isn’t an inscrutable beauty, or a tantalising enigma, she’s a young woman who understands John Keats. Cornish smiles too knowingly for a waif; she smiles like a card sharp. Again, there’s no trace of sentimentality. Her feelings for Keats strike her like a hammer striking an anvil. When he dies, her tears are searing. Cornish looks at Whishaw throughout as if, when she was around him, she could see the blood moving through his body. When he’s sick, it’s as if she can see the sickness. The final meeting between the two, when Fanny begs John to take her with him to Italy, is heart-breaking because they both know it’s their final meeting. It’s mutual awareness that makes them kin.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever/ Its loveliness increases, it will never/ Pass into nothingness… What Bight Star captures is the ecstasy of love: the part that’s like a great poem. There are easier things in life than love and poetry – accepting mystery is hard – but the rewards are ample. Keats’s metaphor of “diving in a lake” is apt because it’s dangerous. If you refuse to swim for shore, you could drown. But that’s only if you give up. What Jane Campion celebrates in Bright Star is the urge to grasp intangibles: whether you’re struck by a face or a verse, if you pursue that impulse, you discover life.