Writing his brother George in America, John Keats described his teenage neighbor Fanny Brawne as “beautiful, elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange.” Elsewhere, he called her a “minx,” and not affectionately. But those first impressions gave way to warmer feelings. Brawne became the subject of some of his most passionate verse, including the poem “Bright Star,” which lends its title to a Jane Campion film covering their three-year relationship. After Keats’ death from tuberculosis at the age of 25, Brawne spoke of him rarely, revealing Keats’ passionate letters only to her children. Her son sold them after she died.
The letters’ publication led many to posthumously regard Brawne as a great man’s last distraction, and others, mostly recent admirers, to treat her as a muse. Campion’s film acknowledges none of those eventual opinions, as befits a film about characters scarcely able to see beyond the moment at hand, nor given much reason to. The forever-struggling, generally penniless Keats (played with delicate, knowing reserve by Ben Whishaw) captured the unwieldy romantic sensibility with a precise beauty unmatched by even his most famous peers. In his lifetime, he earned some high-placed, vocal detractors and a few dedicated friends and admirers. In a performance that deepens by increments, Abbie Cornish portrays Brawne as a flighty girl turned somber by her affections and heedless of her love’s inevitable end. Inspired by Keats, she starts collecting butterflies. She leaves her mother (Kerry Fox) to sweep up the corpses.
Faithful to the facts, Bright Star moves deliberately from one artfully framed tableau to another, staging most of the action in dim drawing rooms and the verdant paths connecting them. It’s a studied movie that gives itself over to bursts of intensity, and between them sometimes threatens to become as spellbound by its subjects as they become with each other. Played with bearish wit by a standout Paul Schneider, Keats’ friend Charles Armitage Brown sounds the loudest notes of doubt, but even these grow more muted as the romance progresses. Taking a shape almost unrecognizable to modern eyes, Whishaw and Brawne’s love plays out more often in letters and longing looks than embraces. It remained unconsummated, which would add to Keats’ tragedy—he lived life but a little, yet saw so much—had Campion chosen to treat the story so simply. His death near, Keats chose a grave marked only with the epitaph, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” By the film’s end, the mark he leaves on one person has already made a lie of his last words.