We’ve made it, friends–the last Shamedown of 2019. Can you believe it? I sure can’t. Anyone who’s wondering what the heck I’m talking about can find answers at Cinema Shame. Past 2019 Shamedowns can be found here.
John Keats is part of every English major’s academic diet in one way or another. Born in 1795 in the Moorgate section of London, Keats was one of the Romantic poets and a contemporary of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Sadly, Keats died of tubeculosis at the young age of twenty-five, but during his short life he made quite an impression on the English literary world. As in, he was called an irreverent, vulgar upstart. Keats only published fifty-four poems while he was alive, but gained widespread fame after he died. He had a keen mind and was a lively personality with plenty of energy and an active social life.
Keats met Fanny Brawne in 1818 when her family rented half of the house he was staying in with his friend, Charles Brown. The two of them began a passionate love affair, but as Keats was a doomed fellow, the romance was on borrowed time. There’s been a lot of speculation about the particulars of Keats’ and Brawne’s relationship, which makes it tempting subject matter for interpretation. Jane Campion tried her hand at it with 2009’s Bright Star, which was named after a poem Keats wrote about Fanny. I remember seeing trailers for it everywhere, looking all ethreal and romantic while giving nothing away.
I’ve been wanting to see Bright Star for ages, and I was really looking forward to this Shamedown, so I turned on the Blu-ray player feeling curious and alert.
Twenty minutes in, I began glancing at the time counter. About an hour in, I started nodding off. No, I didn’t fall asleep, but I came close. Remember that episode of The Simpsons when Bart’s trying to study while everyone else is playing in the snow? That was me watching Bright Star. More on this later.
The movie opens with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) sewing in her bedroom. This is what she does. All the time. She, as she puts it, is a slave to fashion. Fanny lives with her widowed mother (Kerry Fox), brother Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and sister Toots (Edie Martin), renting houses around the countryside.
One fateful day the Brawnes pay a visit to Charles and Maria Dilke (Gerald Monaco and Claudie Blakely), where one John Keats (Ben Wishaw) and his friend, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) have been staying. Maria wants to know what Fanny thinks of John, so she enlists our heroine to bring him a cup of tea. Fanny seems charmed, but when John asks what she thinks of him, says that he needs a new jacket, preferably blue velvet.
From then on, Fanny and John are drawn to each other. Things start slow, though. Fanny enlists Samuel and Toots to pick up a copy of John’s book, Endymion, because she wants to know whether or not John is an idiot (He’s not, of course). She then asks John to give her poetry lessons, which doesn’t last long, because John tells her that poetry should come as naturally as leaves to a tree.
Fanny and John keep spending time together, with Fanny providing support for John, whose brother, Thomas is dying of tuberculosis. After Thomas dies, Fanny asks John to Christmas dinner, which he readily accepts because he likes that the Brawnes are a loving family. He really loosens up, telling the Brawnes stories about his trip to Scotland and dancing a highland reel with a napkin tucked in his belt. John’s affection for Fanny starts to peek through when he grabs her hand while everyone else clears the table.
John is socially awkward, for all he’s an intense personality. He runs hot and cold, barricading himself in his room. Despite that, he seems to warm up to Fanny and her family, taking walks with Fanny and playing catch in the yard with Samuel and Toots.
Charles sees all this with a jaded eye, making no secret of how much he dislikes Fanny. He thinks she’s too silly, caring only for flirting and fashion, and does whatever he can to keep Fanny and John apart, whether it’s sending her a fake Valentine or taking John off on a trip somewhere. The poor girl can’t even come into a room without him grumbling. Charles is kind of a jerk, really, but falls over his own stumbling block when he gets the housemaid, Abigail (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) pregnant.
Even without Charles throwing a spanner in the works, John and Fanny can’t rush headlong into marriage because he has no money and lives off of other people. He’s also come down with tuberculosis, so his health prevents him from gaining any kind of a financial foothold. Still, he and Fanny allow themselves to dream about making a life together, even though John’s eventual fate hangs over them like a bird of prey.
So why, in the midst of all of this intrigue, was I fighting off sleep? Well, Bright Star got the basic facts of the Keats-Brawne romance correct, but the finished product was rather blah. The acting would be very competent except that most of the time every actor sounds stilted and monotone, as if they’re narrating a yoga workout or something. The only one who seems natural is Paul Schneider, even though his character has a hate-on for Fanny.
Plus, Bright Star seems to revel in its own blandness. There are scenes when Keats attempts to brood, or at least the movie wants us to think that he’s brooding, even though all he’s really doing is laying on the sofa staring into space. And just in case we don’t get it, Charles is there to spell it out for us: “If you don’t see us doing anything, that means we’re working.”
There was no reason for the movie to be this boring, either. John Keats was no stick-in-the-mud, and Fanny was famously vivacious to the point of being like a Regency-era Kardashian. The movie should have been full of sparkling dialogue and antics on the line of Jane Austen, because then the hard parts would have had way more punch. Instead, it just plods along, and when John gets tuberculosis it plods even harder. It sounds a little harsh, but the ending was almost a relief.
I think the way forward for this movie would have been to just let John and Fanny be themselves. We may not know all the details of their love affair, but we know enough to see how passionate they were, or at least Keats was. For one thing, these two wrote letters, and we know Keats was full of poetic and intense ardor. Unfortunately, only Keats’ letters to Fanny survive, because for some reason he burned all but the last few letters she wrote to him. What wasn’t burned was buried with him. Ergo, we don’t know if the love was one-sided or if Fanny was equally passionate, and that’s what makes the story so intriguing.
After Keats died, Fanny married Louis Lindon, had three children, and died at the age of sixty-five. The interesting thing is she never spoke publically about her romance with the tragic poet, even after Keats’ fame began to finally grow. We don’t even know if she was interested in the posthumous accolades her former lover was earning. One one hand it’s understandable, because at that point in Fanny’s life it may have looked like cashing in, but on the other, people must have questioned her about her relationship with Keats. We’ll never know for sure.
Seeing as Keats was such a wonder, it’s a shame Bright Star didn’t capture he and Fanny better. As the man once wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
A new Origins post is coming up tomorrow, and you can probably guess what it’s about. Thanks for reading, all…
Bright Star is available on DVD from Amazon.