Monday, June 14, 2010
Over the weekend I finally saw Jane Campion's film, Bright Star, about the relationship between the great English poet, John Keats, and his fiance, Fanny Brawne. I wanted to love this movie, because I adore Keats' poetry, and the Romantics and Romanticism in general, and I'm also terribly fond of picturesque period dramas and intense love stories. Yet I came away from Bright Star feeling vaguely disappointed. Let me acknowledge, first of all, that Bright Star is a visual feast. Indeed, there were many things about the film I liked very much. The way it was paced, it's quietness, the lack of obtrusive music, the use of light, color and composition made the film a powerful reflection on a lost way of living and loving, when less was much, much more: small gestures, a touch, a letter, a word meant more and were more deeply felt than is sex itself in our overstimulated age. Though Keats and Fanny never consummated their romance, Campion's portrayal of their whispering, gazing, touching and kissing seemed to me more replete with erotic intensity, more complete, than 90% of Hollywood sex-scenes.
What bothered me about the movie then? Simply that it didn't seem to have anything much to do with John Keats or Fanny Brawne, but rather with two semi-fictional characters bearing the same names. The John Keats in the movie seems to have dropped from the sky, and to be nearly without past, family or friends, except for Charles Brown, portrayed as an odious, boorish bitch of a fellow who is jealous of Keats' relationship with Fanny, and bitterly possessive of Keats' companionship. Within the context of the movie, one couldn't conceive how Keats could voluntarily tolerate the company of such a man, much less his gross discourtesy to Fanny. We learn only through a passing remark that Keats had medical training. We learn in the film of only one of Keats' brothers, and nothing of his sister. We see little of Keats' quick temper, or love of fun. In fact, he seems quite a dull, mooning fellow. Meanwhile Fanny is portrayed as a gorgeously brooding young woman of profound intensity and sincerity, bearing little resemblance to the flirtatious girl whom Keats upbraids in one of his letters for her lack of seriousness.
I couldn't help feeling that Campion was more interested in her own admittedly beautiful vision than in her purported subject. Fortunately, she is an artist of formidable talent, and regarded as a meditation on love and loss in a quieter age, Bright Star is well worth watching.