On first looking into Jane Campion's "Bright Star

By Steve Sedlak

Jane Campion – director of the 1993 Best Picture nominee “The Piano” – returns to familiar 19th century territory with “Bright Star.” A period picture that is neither a full-out biopic nor a literary drama is hard to pull off, but Campion paints a tragically lyrical romance, despite the equally tragic history of the film’s genres.”Bright Star” is the story of John Keats’s last years on this mortal coil. Now respected as one of the greatest poets of the romantic literary movement, Keats is truthfully portrayed as a poor bachelor poet in his twenties. Keats lost both of his parents in his youth and came into a relatively large inheritance, most of which was spent on 6 1/2 years of medical training. During his apprenticeship as a surgeon’s assistant, Keats took to poetry. The film doesn’t delve very far into Keats’s pre-1818 past, which made the character’s passing reference to paying his keep through medicine seem totally random to me at first.

Despite his seemingly self-imposed poverty, Keats is poetically rich, but considered unrefined by contemporary critics and even his friends. Fanny Brawne, daughter to the caring, matronly widow Mrs. Brawne, is part of this constituency. Fanny, who is fond of designing and making clothes, decides to take it upon herself to find out if Keats is “an idiot or not” and buys his “Endymion: A Poetic Romance.” Fanny is taken by its first stanza, but unimpressed by the poem as a whole. This doesn’t stop her from flirting with Keats at a ball and visiting him often.

Keats’s brother dies from consumption (tuberculosis), but his passing brings Fanny and John closer together. Drama ensues when Keats’s misogynist housemate, Charles Brown, sends Fanny a valentine. Taking this as a personal affront, Keats attacks Brown out of jealousy. Brown’s decrying of Fanny as a flirt drives her away until springtime. As the British countryside awakens from its wintry slumber, so does the couple’s affections for one another.

If you were to pick up a Penguin edition of Keats’s poetry and glance at the timeline of Keats’s short, short life, you would find that the film is also pleasantly historically accurate. For example, you will recognize a Christmas scene in which Keats “dines with Fanny Brawne, with whom he has reached an ‘understanding,’ and her mother.” Unfortunately for us movie-goers, the film’s historical accuracy also means Keats will most definitely meet a sad end. No degree of Hollywood romance can save Keats from his ultimate fate of death by tuberculosis.

Campion skillfully incorporates the romance of the seasons into “Bright Star” in a way that keeps their presence from falling into the realm of Hallmark sentimentality. After Keats dies, Fanny Brawne walks the hearth, quietly reciting his poetry to herself beneath the cover of a bleak English sky and black mourning bonnet. The shaky tracking shot that takes in Fanny’s meditation, as well as the steely color palate of the English landscape and Fanny’s regency costume, are nothing short of the romantic poetry Keats came to typify. She recites Keats’s poetry for him, but we the viewers have in some way become Keats by a trick of the camera. Although few of us can say we have Keats’s eloquence, we are equal believers in the romance of this image and accompany Fanny to the end of her recitation before the screen fades to black.