Review of “Bright Star” (2009)
WARNING: ODE TO SPOILERS
The Uptown Theater in Seattle’s lower Queen Anne neighborhood unintentionally helped its audience empathize with John Keats (Ben Whishaw), the doomed protagonist in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” during its first show the other afternoon. As Keats coughed from tuberculosis, shivered in the rain and fled to the warmer weather of Naples and Rome, we in the audience sat for two hours in the cold, seemingly unheated theater. By the time Keats succumbed, we were chilled to the bone. Right there with ya, bro.
“Bright Star” is a lovely film about doomed love told at a leisurely pace, which raises—at least in me—the following questions: Does love need lethargy to bloom? Does it inspire lethargy? If you’re deeply in love, what else do you want or need besides your love? What do you pursue? The world is too much reduced. Maybe in this sense all young loves are doomed. We either lose the love or lose the world.
The key to “Bright Star,” though, as with all love stories, is less the love than the forces that keep the lovers apart.
Initially young Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), expert seamstress, and John Keats, failed poet, roundly savaged by the critics of his day, are strangers in Hamstead Village, London, 1818. They meet, talk of wit, talk of fashion, become intrigued. His brother dies, she sympathizes. She’s headstrong, as are all cinematic heroines during this period, and she buys and reads his book of poems, Endymion, which begins:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Nice thought! She doesn’t quite know what to make of it. “Are you frightened to speak truthfully?” he asks. “Never,” she replies, headstrong. Then she confesses she doesn’t really know poetry. He confesses he doesn’t really know women. They solve their mutual dilemma by having him teach her poetry.
The main aesthetic principle attributed to Keats is negative capability, “when man,“ he once wrote, ”is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Shakespeare was the master, he felt, and in the film he describes the principle to Fanny via metaphor. Why do you dive into a lake? To swim to the other side? No. It’s for the experience of being surrounded by water. And that’s what poetry is.
These lessons take place over the protestations of his housemate and contemporary, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), who, either from pettiness, jealousy, or genuine worry that Fanny will distract the great man, is one of the forces trying to keep them apart. He has the equally thankless role of playing Salieri to Keats’ Amadeus: the contemporary who recognizes the unrecognized genius and knows he’ll never measure up. Plus he chases after dull maids and knocks them up. Dude's a piece of work.
But there's a greater force keeping them apart: He’s a poet whose books don’t sell. He has no means of support.
Still, despite the mores of the time, they fall in love. Her family—mother, gawky silent younger brother, cute button of a red-haired baby sister—move into the duplex Keats and Brown share, where Fanny and Keats now have nothing but a wall separating them. Sometimes, rarely at the same time, they press their faces against this wall. It's the physical representation of all those forces keeping them apart.
These forces are no match for Spring. The weather warms, the bees flit around the flowers, and Mrs. Brawne says, “Mr. Keats is being a bee.” Indeed. He and Fanny go for a walk, and he tells her of a dream and talks of lips. “Whose lips?” she asks teasingly. “Were they my lips?” They kiss. The kiss comes as a shock. We get that? They get that? The film, quiet anyway, drops to murmurs. The music overwhelms. Is it Mozart? Baby sister fetches them and they play a game on the way back, freezing in their tracks when she turns around. Fanny lays on her bed, the breeze billowing the curtains. Life is suspended and buzzing. It’s opened up—all senses—but reduced to the next walk, hand hold, glance. Campion is close to brilliant here. Her film isn’t just about first love; it feels like first love.
But being in love is never the story. So Keats travels to the Isle of Wight to write, to try to make a living, and Fanny is left behind. Ah, but the letters. He writes, says he wishes they could be butterflies, living three perfect summer days and expiring, and she and her siblings collect butterflies and fill her room. “When I don’t hear from him,” she confesses to her mother, “it’s as if I’d die.” One can't help but remember one's own first love. Mine took place in the late 1980s, and, though 170 years had passed, the means of communication, give or take a telephone, were more or less the same. Twenty years later, they're not. Do young lovers today still send letters? How does one clutch an e-mail to one’s chest? There is no more daily waiting for the postman. Now the wait is 24/7. Has she written? Has she written? Has she written? I think I’d go crazy. Or crazier.
When the Isle of Wight doesn’t change his fortunes, Keats seeks them in London, and the dead butterflies are swept up. But he keeps returning in all kinds of weather. Does anyone go to “Bright Star” not knowing Keats’ end? Watching, I kept thinking of that Seymour Glass poem from J.D. Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction”:
Please put your scarf on
When Brown says, “Mr. Keats has gone to London with no coat,” I knew this was it. But even death is drawn out in the 19th century.
My disappointment with the film is in its end, dealing, as it does, with the pain of those left behind and not with the mystery of the final barrier. Does Keats have his face pressed to that wall or is he dissolved like the butterflies? The film should’ve dove into those mysteries, surrounded us with them. What happened to him and her and their love? Did it pass into nothingness or is it a joy forever? Or am I irritably clutching after?
“Bright Star” is a wholly evocative film. See it not to find out what happens. See it for the sensation of surrounding yourself with it.