Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Bright Star, Dim Star, Bright Star, Dim Star

Since I first learned about Jane Campion's film Bright Star,the story of John Keats's doomed relationship with his sometime muse, Fanny Brawne, I have been somewhere between ambivalent and schizophrenic about it.

One the one hand I have loved Keats poetry since I first encountered Ode on a Grecian Urn as a high school student and then chose him as an author to focus on in college, so why wouldn't I love the opportunity to see a biopic of him? Well....Becoming Jane for starters. I hate it when the genius of a favorite artist is reduced to being simply the result of thwarted love. Yes, Keats adored Fanny. Yes, she inspired some of his poetry, but there was so much more to Keats than this single infatuation followed by his untimely death from tuberculosis.

Nevertheless, I did get caught up in the excitement surrounding Bright Star in the blogosphere and read so many good reviews of it that I was first in the queue at Netflix when the DVD was released.

Did I like it? Yes and no. I thought it was brilliantly acted, lusciously filmed, gloriously costumed, and poorly scripted. I was confused. While I've read all of Keats poems, some repeatedly, and all of his letters, though quite awhile ago, I've never read a biography. I couldn't quite remember why he came to be living with Charles Brown, who the people were who rented the house to Charles Brown and Fanny's family and came to tea and offered advice, and why Charles Brown was so condescending to Fanny, was there a backstory there I didn't know about? The movie never explained any of this, nor did it explain who the young men were who raised the funds to send Keats to Rome and his death.

Since Bright Star was really only about the relationship between Keats and Fanny, I think I would have liked it better had we not had all these other characters floating about who were apparently extraneous to the story but kept getting in the way and confusing and annoying me.

To be honest, I did get caught up in the love story. But again, nit-picking, I felt a certain frustration in Keats being forever barred from marrying Fanny because he had no money. If he loved her that much, why didn't he get a job so that they could marry? Oh, yes, he was a poet and needed his musing time. I'm being facetious, but why couldn't the script have him rant even a little about having to choose poetry over Fanny because that is what he ultimately did. Instead, it seemed like Mrs. Brawne and the busy-body landlady were pulling a Lady Russell and forbidding Fanny to "marry for love." You can't live on love, even passionate love, and it bugs me that Bright Star reduces Keats's life to that simple plot line.

The absolutely best part of the movie was Ben Whishaw as Keats reciting his poetry. I would have been perfectly happy to have 2 hours of that with the pretty images of Keats/Fanny walking over the bridge, gathering flowers, pressing hands to the walls that separated them, gazing at the sky, etc.

I thought Abbie Cornish did a wonderful job as Fanny--I am predisposed not to like Fanny but she overcame my long-term prejudice against the woman who broke Keats's heart. She was a sweet sister, a dutiful daughter, a pragmatic yet romantic young woman (i.e., a nice mixture of sense and sensibility), with a feisty streak. In a way, I wish Bright Star had been more about her and how one of the world's greatest poets touched her life and heart and then was gone. I guess that's what it the movie ultimately was, but the tag line to the movie about how she walked alone for a long time after Keats died was just too sappy for me. I would have rather seen how Keats affected her--how she handled her loss. The movie should have had Keats dying in the middle and then it could have showed how Fanny dealt with it and grew up and moved on, but was still steadfast and true.

You see...I am ambivalent about this movie, to the point of rewriting it!


  1. Well, great idea Jane! Why don't you seriously think about it? A new writing task for you... your own bio of Keats/Fanny. Why not? It'd be wonderful! I've just got my DVD of Bright Star but still have to find some spare time to watch it. I've waited for it for so long that now I want to sit and enjoy it properly. So, you are definitely unromantic Jane. Why can't these geniuses you mention (Austen and Keats) have their fictional love stories? I liked Becoming Jane. I was sure that THAT couldn't be the real Jane, but I loved the possibility the film gave her to be for once the heroine of a romance. She had such an uneventful life that her incredible genius is even more unbelievable! The same for Keats. His love story with Fanny has been so important to him and his poetic career, but so "tepid" in reality ... why can't we dream - with Jane Campion .about the possibility it was , instead, a great romance? I know. I am definitely romantic, maybe unlike you.And strange is that ... the more I get old the more I get worse!!!
    But I loved your review!!! I really DID!!!

  2. This is near the top of my queue but I know very little about Keats so I will probably have no complaints. Although I tend to research AFTER I see a biopic and then I start complaining. ;)

  3. Well, I think I won't mind the shortcomings if I just rent the DVD but it sounds like I'll be glad that I didn't pay theater prices.

  4. Oh gosh, this movie has been on my netflix queue too, but I keep bumping it down when it comes up because I just don't know how I'll feel about it. Perhaps I should just give it a try and see how it's like.

  5. Very intriguing! I meant to take my mother when it was in the theater; she has Netflix and I don't so I will remind her to add it to her list. Thanks for the review.

  6. You capture my reluctance to see this film precisely! However, I think this review has confirmed that I will, at some point, breakdown and watch it. I must concur with Maria - I think you would be an excellent author for such a project. If you decide to act on it, please let us know.

  7. I'm hoping to see this during the next few weeks, and I'm very curious about it. I don't know as much about Keats's life as you do, but I love his poetry and will probably love the poetry reading and the beautiful images. I imagine I'll get caught up in the story, but try not to trust it at the same time. If I can think of it as a movie about some random poet rather than about Keats, it might work better :)

  8. I'm looking forward to seeing this movie too. I do love Keats as a poet. I love beautiful cinematography. So, that much will be enjoyable but I'll be wondering about how they tell his life as well. I would agree that I feel his life would've been much more rich and complicated than the simple plot line that you described. I've never read a biography of Keats and perhaps it's time to think of doing that. I'm curious to see what I think of the movie. I appreciate your valid ideas.

  9. I can't wait to watch this movie - on NetFlix list. It looks beautiful and since I have been reading reviews saying people haven't loved this movie... I will lower the bar.

    I am expecting a beautifully, stunning movie....

  10. I hope you all let me know how you like Bright Star--this was a difficult movie to review because it is beautiful and soul-stirring, but...