I had the misfortune of studying Keats in the same term I was taught Byron. As a result, despite admiring his poetry, we teenage girls couldn't help but think Keats a bit of a sap in comparison to dashing, dangerous Byron. He was, after all, just a bourgeois doctor, who talked drippily of sensory experience and the unfortunately named "negative capability" - being open to everything and comfortable with uncertainty. Worse still, his only love affair was with the unfortunately named girl-next-door, Fanny Brawne. As with Byron, Keats' life was cut short, but rather than being killed in a dashing Greek adventure, Keats died of TB - far more pedestrian a death to teenage girls. We teenage girls came to the brutal conclusion that when it came to Keats, it was best to stick to the poetry, and leave off exploring his life because, frankly, he didn't have much of one.
Unfortunately, Jane Campion's new film about the love affair between Keats and Fanny Brawne has not changed my opinion one jot. Ben Whishaw is, of course, a marvellous actor, and is deeply affecting as the limpid Keats, reaching out to touch Fanny's hand at a dinner party. But what can we make of Australian actress Abbie Cornish's Fanny - with her uncertain English accent - and her characterisation as a girl who liked to flirt and sew? Apparently Keats and Fanny bonded over the shared experiences of grief, but frankly, there is not much in this film to suggest why they had such a powerful attraction to each other. By far the most interesting character in the piece is Keats' friend, fellow poet and benefactor, Mr Brown, played by Paul Schneider. He is a fascinating because he was arguably interested in Fanny himself, was evidently a bit of a rogue, but also deeply protective of his friend. Paul Schneider gives a compelling performance but it's a shame that he too cannot pull off the accent required of the role - in this case, Scottish.
When introducing the film, writer-director Jane Campion said that she used to be frightened of poetry and that the audience shouldn't worry if they were, because this film catered to them. That is, to my mind, it's flaw. Because I didn't understand the relationship between Fanny and Keats - because the script and performances hadn't convinced me of it or made it compelling - I was looking to the film for insight into how love had affected Keats' work. But, a few recitations apart, there is very little about the process of writing, or what Keats thought about writing in this film. Indeed, the only clumsy reference to inspiration is in a scene where Fanny's little brother is trying to find a nightingale's nest and then we switch to a scene in which Keats pens his favourite ode. Oh dear.
The upshot is that this film contains a not particularly interesting nor convincing central romance and not much else. Can we say anything positive about it? Well, Jane Campion is, as ever, brilliant at creating a sensory impression - close-ups of flowers, women sewing, etc. The film looks great. But this is by no means a film that should be bracketed with the superb PORTRAIT OF A LADY, THE PIANO or IN THE CUT.
BRIGHT STAR played Cannes, Toronto and London. It is currently on release in the USA, Israel and the Netherlands. It opens in the UK on November 6th and in December in Germany, Greece and Australia. It opens on January 7th in Portugal and on January 13th in France.